Every few weeks for the past few years, the residents at Merwick Care, a nursing home on Plainsboro Road, have gotten a visit from a therapist who is a very good listener. The therapist, Louie, is specially trained for the job, and is a welcome, familiar face for the residents, some of whom don’t get any visitors from their families. Louie never complains, and literally jumps through hoops for his patients.
Louie, of course, is a therapy dog, and has been brought to Merwick by his owner, Sue Albert, who enrolled Louie in the Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs program. The organization, based in Morris Plains, trains therapy dogs all around the country and arranges visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and even libraries where kids are learning to read and schools where students have undergone trauma.
In some cases, it seems that the owners of the therapy dogs benefit from the program just as much as the people they visit.
Albert is a good example of this. She grew up in Parsippany where her father was a factory worker and her mother was a computer keypunch operator. She has two grown children and a sister who works at Merwick as a housekeeper.
Albert’s involvement with the program goes back to 2007, when she was going through a hard time in her life. When Albert was 25, her mother had died at age 51, leaving Albert to take care of her disabled aunt, who lived in a nursing home. In June the aunt died, and the month after, Albert’s marriage broke up.
The double blow left Albert in need of therapy, and she began a biofeedback regime. “I had an experience after the therapy, went into the chapel on my mom’s birthday, and I had this vivid image of my grandma’s dog, this dachshund,” she says. “It was a vivid, spiritual experience.”
One day, the sister and her 17-year-old son, seeing that Albert was lonely, brought a one-year-old beagle home from an animal shelter. As it happened, the hound had been found on the same day Albert had her vision. “I didn’t want the dog,” Albert says. “But I had to sign all the papers because it was in my house.” Louie, a shoe-chewing puppy, and Albert, who was still feeling upset and depressed, bonded right away.
A few years went by, and Albert began to think that if her aunt were still alive, she would have appreciated a visit from a therapy dog. She wondered if Louie could become certified as a therapy dog and looked into the requirements.
In New Jersey one of the leading therapy dog organizations is a group called Bright and Beautiful Therapy dogs. To earn a therapy dog certificate, a dog has to pass a test administered by an examiner. The dog has to obey commands, be comfortable with groups of people, and remain calm around other dogs and humans with crutches, wheelchairs, and canes. The pooch also has to walk past and ignore a piece of food on the ground.
Around the same time, Albert found out that one of her friends was now living in Merwick, where her aunt had lived. She decided to take Louie to visit, even though she thought that as a beagle, he would never be able to pass the food-ignoring part of the therapy dog test. Official or not, right away Albert could see how the nursing home residents brightened up when she brought Louie around.
The visits also helped Albert overcome her depression. “I don’t know what happened, but it really snapped me out of it,” she says. “I felt like I was serving some purpose that was bigger than me.”
One day, to brighten up the visit, she brought a hula hoop that she had made, and someone stopped her to ask if the dog jumped through the hoop. That night, she took Louie home to see if he would jump through the hoop for food, and he did it on the first try. Thereafter, Albert would take Louie around Merwick jumping through hoops to entertain the residents.
In 2013 Albert ran into a representative of Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs at a Petsmart and decided to give Louie the test. Amazingly, he passed the whole thing including the food. “He must have been distracted,” Albert says. Since then Albert and Louie have been an official dog therapy team.
The visits dropped off a few years ago for a while when Albert was diagnosed with breast cancer. During Albert’s recovery, she found that having Louie around was, well, therapeutic. The dog pushed her to get outside the house even when she didn’t feel like it.
“He forced me to have to walk,” she says. “It made me feel good to be outside in the sun.”
June Golden, executive director and founder of Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, says Albert’s experience is not uncommon. Golden, a Weehawken native whose mother was a homemaker and father an electrician, grew up in a house full of dogs and has always believed in the healing power of having a pet.
Golden worked as a printer in West Orange early in her career, but retired at 40, in the mid-1980s, after her husband’s business took off. “I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life,” she says. “And I wanted it to be with dogs.”
Golden volunteered for a seeing eye dog group, and there she learned about the still somewhat exotic idea that dogs could help people with their psychological as well as physical needs. She trained her border terrier, Chewie, to be a therapy dog. Her first visit was to a nursing home.
“Chewie was a great little partner,” she recalls. “But pet therapy wasn’t widely accepted back then. When we first contacted facilities, we would say, ‘I want to come in with a therapy dog,’ and they would say, ‘you want to do what with a dog?’ But once they would see what we did, they would understand it.”
Times have changed. “We now have facilities calling our office every day begging us for therapy dogs,” she says. “We’re unable to keep up with demand.”
Science has since backed up what Golden observed: people just like having the chance to visit with a dog. “Talking to another person raises your blood pressure,” she says. “But a dog makes you feel calmer. It reminds you of home, and it will bring back memories of dogs that you have had and made you happy earlier in life.”
Golden’s program brings dogs to St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston where children hold the dogs while going through chemotherapy treatments. “It makes them feel better,” she says. “A lot of times, children in hospitals have never been away from home before, and they’re scared. And along comes this little scruffy brown dog with a wagging tail and they feel a little bit better.”
Golden founded Bright and Beautiful in 1999, combining the training methodologies from several previous therapy dog groups that Golden had been in. She says the group really took off after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when the dogs searching the rubble of the World Trade Center were heavily publicized. Some of those search-and-rescue dogs served double duty as therapy dogs with Bright and Beautiful.
“We had therapy dogs helping the families of victims,” she says. “The exposure of the dogs after that terrible trauma really made people notice.”
Golden, who has had five therapy dogs over the years, says they can have a profound effect on some patients. She remembers taking one dog to a psychiatric facility. She brought the dog to a man who was sitting by himself, and he began talking to the dog. One of the staffers pulled Golden aside and told her the man had not spoken to anyone in months.
Golden credits one of her dogs with helping in an even greater recovery. She says that one day she took her dog to a hospital where a family was gathered around a coma patient. The dog put the paw on the comatose woman’s shoulder, and she rolled over, slowly opened her eyes, looked at the dog, and said “beautiful.” The woman made a full recovery.
In addition to scheduling hospital visits, the organization has a reading dog program in libraries for children who have difficulty learning to read. The kids can read out loud to the dogs. “The dogs are not judgmental,” Golden says. “They don’t care if you don’t pronounce words quite right. They just listen to you and it gives the kids a lot of confidence.”
Carmella Aaron, a retired special education teacher who lives in Hamilton, has taken her dog, Frankie, on therapy visits for the last four years. Frankie, part golden retriever, part Labrador rescue dog, had the perfect gentle temperament for a therapy dog and passed the exam easily.
“I had been retired for several years, and I was looking for something to do,” she says. “I saw an article about therapy dogs, did some research, and found a trainer.” Aaron found a trainer, Tricia Baker, who is also the head of a Plainsboro-based group called Attitudes in Reverse, which uses therapy dogs to help young adults who suffer from depression.
One of Frankie’s jobs is suicide prevention. Every time a student at a school commits suicide, Attitudes in Reverse sends a therapy dog to that school to help the student’s classmates.
Frankie also visited Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and the Princeton University Hospital at Plainsboro, although since Frankie is getting on in years, he has stopped the hospital visits.
“I would visit certain floors, and I would knock on a patient’s door, poke my head in and ask if they would like a visit from a therapy dog,” Aaron says. “Nine out of ten times, they were very excited to have a dog come visit. They would talk to the dog, pet the dog, and relate it to pets they had of their own.” The lonelier patients would spend a while talking to Aaron and Frankie.
But it wasn’t just the patients who benefitted. “The staff were always excited to see Frankie,” Aaron says. “The head nurse on one of the floors would get down on her hands and knees and just put her arms around Frankie and hug him. The nurses would always say, ‘we need our therapy too.’”
The dog lightened the mood of an otherwise stressful and fearful place. “It would just bring a little bit of joy to the patients who were animal lovers, and even those who weren’t animal lovers. It just brightened their day a bit and made them feel better and gave them somebody to talk to. Frankie would give the patients a high five or a wave. I had treats with me and ask if they wanted to give the dog a treat, and of course they did.”
Another site that Aaron would visit was the Princeton House, a rehab center on Herrontown Road. “The patients there were so happy to see the therapy dog, they would gather around him,” she says. “They would talk to the dog and pet the dog and he would just lie there and get belly rubs. They just had big smiles, and would ask me questions about Frankie. It was a respite from their daily routines.”
Aaron recalls one patient in particular who was particularly grateful to see Frankie. He was a young teenage boy at Princeton House. “When he saw Frankie, his face just lit up,” Aaron says. “He just went over and hugged him and said, ‘this is the best thing that has happened to me since I’ve been here.’ And that just tugged at my heartstrings.”
Other patients, especially the elderly ones, would recall pets of their own with tears in their eyes while petting the dog. “It’s just a similar kind of reaction of gratefulness to have a dog come and visit them,” she said.
When Frankie was most energetic, Aaron would visit four different facilities a week. She found the work extremely rewarding. “I walk around with a big smile on my face and it makes me feel really, really good to know that just a simple act of bringing a dog to visit a patient just brightens up their whole day and makes them feel fantastic. I’ve had 13 surgeries in my life, and I’ve been in and out of every hospital in Philadelphia and New Jersey, and I’ve never had a therapy dog visit me. The thought of having a dog come to visit me would have made my day.”
On Sunday, December 17, Sue Albert and her beagle, Louie, visited Merwick Center. They made the rounds. Louie, wearing his customary bow tie, jumped through a few hoops and visited with the patients. They were accompanied by Christmas carolers, who brought a little holiday cheer to the facility.
It was Louie’s last day as a therapy dog. He is getting old now and has health problems of his own, Albert says. At 11, Louie is 77 in dog years and is ready for his own retirement. Albert doesn’t know if she will get another dog after Louie is gone.
“He’s a very good boy,” she says.
Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, 80 Powder Mill Road, Morris Plains 07950. 973-292-3316. June Golden, executive director. www.golden-dogs.org.