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A Therapy Dog Makes a Difference

For her 14th birthday, my daughter welcomed Stanley, a 9-month-old white fur ball puppy with slightly crossed green eyes. Destined for greatness, he had a natural good temperament and within a month mastered basic skills such as sit, stay, down, and leave it. He socialized well with cats and dogs in our neighborhood. Young kids loved him.

Ashley researched volunteer possibilities and discovered that her well-mannered pet would be a perfect match as a therapy dog to provide comfort and affection to people in retirement homes, hospitals, hospice, and skilled-nursing facilities.

With a list of the requirements in hand, she set out to train Stanley. Crutches, wheelchairs, and walkers did not unnerve him. He allowed tasty treats to be removed from his mouth and didn’t growl if we touched his food. He was on his way to passing the Canine Good Citizenship exam at the animal shelter. Test day arrived by summer’s end.

“Think you’re ready?” I asked.

“No problem,” Ashley said, stroking his head. Stanley wagged his stubby tail and licked her hand in agreement.

He passed the 15 steps necessary for certification and Tri-Valley Humane Society awarded him a purple vest embroidered with the title “Therapy Dog.”

Ashley chose to volunteer at Roseview Assisted Living Facility. On our first visit, Gina, a slender dark-haired coordinator, asked us to introduce Stanley to the residents in the common area, a spacious room with comfortable seating and a grand piano.

“Would you like to meet Stanley?” Ashley asked in a boisterous voice to each resident. “Want to pet him?” Yesses echoed around the room and hands clamored to stroke his back or tickle his belly. They hugged and kissed Stanley and he thanked them by sitting by their sides.

“What type of dog is he?” they asked.

“He’s a cock-a-chon, cocker spaniel and bichon mix,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Want me to put him on your lap?”

“Oh, please,” said a stout, cheery lady in two-piece pale blue jogging outfit, patting a spot on her lap. She stroked Stanley and he barked his approval. “He’s so soft,” she said. Her eyes sparkled. “Do I smell lavender?”

“I sprayed him with pooch perfume for his first visit,” Ashley said. The lady crushed her nose into his fur; a content smile warmed her face.

But we discovered that not everyone was receptive to Stanley’s charm. “Get that dog away,” said Alice, her mouth twisting and hands flapping. “I don’t like them.” Alice, a tall, loud talker, was disagreeable and short tempered. Residents avoided her. We spotted her staring at us from the corner of her eye keeping a close watch on Stanley’s whereabouts.

At our next visit, Alice sat alone in an overstuffed chair holding an AARP magazine in her lap. “Nice to see you again,” Ashley said, taking a deep breath. When we sat down at her table, she made a sudden move to shift to her wheelchair and clutched the chair’s arm with gnarled fingers.

“Can I help you?” I asked as I leaned forward and extended a hand.

“Not unless you get that ugly look off your face,” she snapped.

What the hell?

“Hmmm, OK,” I said, scratching my neck. What now?

Unperturbed by the rude comment, Ashley took Alice by the arm and guided her into her wheelchair. She hustled her back to her room and I followed behind with Stanley on his leash.

On our way out, Stanley poked his head into Mary’s room and she coaxed us into her studio apartment. Tiny and graceful, Mary treated Ashley like her granddaughter and called her Sarah. Stanley was mistaken for Samantha, the pooch she left behind when she entered Roseview.

“Come here Samantha, you’re so sweet,” she said, holding out a crunchy peanut butter treat for Stanley. He lifted his paw for a shake. “Samantha, you’re such a good dog. I missed you,” she said. She cuddled Stanley and entertained us with funny stories, like the time her poodle ran away and ended up at the barbershop. After 10 minutes, time for goodbyes; she shed tears when we left the room.

Our proudest moment came two months later in the memory care area for Alzheimer’s patients. In this section, the people were sedate and introspective, lost in their own imaginations. We suspected they might benefit from a visit from our Stanley.

We lugged a basketful of costumes for Stanley’s fashion show. His outfits included a blue clown collar with a pointy hat topped with red pom-poms, resort wear, a leather biker jacket and a pink boa with matching tutu.

“What’s your dog’s name,” asked a lady, stooped over in her wheelchair. She clapped in joy as Stanley strutted in a glossy rain jacket with matching boots. I’m the bomb diggity, he seemed to say as he swaggered past.

Patients who remained motionless during previous visits came to life as Stanley pranced by. He melted their anxiety and both dog and patient enjoyed the physical contact. Now, despite their various stages of decline, most remembered their favorite dog and shared a little bit with us. They petted Stanley on their laps, sang, and laughed at his tricks.

“What’s your dog’s name?” asked the lady in the wheelchair again.

“Stanley,” my daughter said.

“How old is he?” asked a disheveled curmudgeon.

“What’s your dog’s name?” asked the lady the third time.

Ashley repeated his name with the patience of a trained assistant.

Gina, our friendly coordinator, approached us as we left memory care. “You’re doing a good job here,” she said squeezing Ashley’s hand. “I’ve never seen them so animated. Thanks.”

In the front lobby Alice intercepted us politely.

“Are you leaving?” she asked. “Did I miss the show?” Her eyes misted.

“We’ll be back next week for another visit. You can help teach Stanley a new trick.”

“I love dogs,” she whispered.

Stacey Gustafson is an author, humor columnist, and blogger. Her book, Are You Kidding Me? My Life With an Extremely Loud Family, Bathroom Calamities, and Crazy Relatives, was ranked as a No. 1 Amazon Best Seller in Parenting & Family Humor. She lives in Pleasanton with her husband, two children, and Stanley, of course. Visit her blog at StaceyGustafson.com or follow on Twitter @RUKiddingStacey. In June, Ashley graduated from Santa Clara University with a business degree in marketing. She and Stanley are still the best of friends, sharing joy with everyone they meet.

Main article photo by: Stacey Gustafson