A New Breed of Visitor




“I just love Abbot,” says Lieberman resident Lorraine F. “I like to pet his head and stroke his furry back. It makes me feel so good because it’s so calming. He comes up and sits next to you and looks at you with his big brown eyes. He’s such a wonderful dog; you’d think he’s a person. He just looks at you and he seems to answer ‘yes’ and ‘no.’” She giggles a bit, trying to defend herself: “I can’t help it. He’s just so smart. He knows what you’re thinking. It’s like real communication. You look at his eyes and you can tell what’s on his mind. I could visit with him indefinitely.” She seems thrilled with the bond she’s formed with Abbot.
Abbot is one of a growing number of Pet Therapy dogs that are being used in nursing homes, hospitals, assisted living facilities and hospices as a way to enrich and calm the atmosphere and encourage the engagement of patients and residents.

Lorraine F. with her Monday visitor

Jaclyn Abramson, Friend Center Supervisor, testifies to the advantages of Pet Therapy: “Weinberg Community welcomes and encourages Pet Therapy. As soon as the dogs enter the space, you immediately see an increase in positive mood and socialization. Specifically, clients with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (or other related dementias) can struggle with verbal communication and feelings of isolation and depression. However, when they participate in Pet Therapy they are able to express themselves verbally and non-verbally to the animals and they can also give and receive love. No matter who you are or what diagnosis you have been given, everyone wants to feel loved and this type of therapy provides much-needed unconditional love. When a pet gives them a kiss, it can make their entire day. Some of our Adult Day Services clients only come certain days just to see the dogs!”

Stu Unger, a zealous promoter of PetTherapy, volunteer and the owner of certified Pet Therapy German Shepherds Louise, Finn and Roma, gives this impassioned endorsement: “There are so many lonely older people, who really don’t have anybody in their life, and the ability for them to relate to a dog is wonderful—they light up! He continues, “Some of them become different people—they become part of the group, integrated into the discussion and they relate stories of their pets when they were children. They speak of how wonderful it is to see such a beautiful animal, one so friendly; they just talk about everything related to the experience.” Unger says even people with dementia are affected: “For them, the animal is very calming. In fact, I consider it to be a real spiritual connection between the animal and the older adult. It’s nature at its most elemental—the dog is a creation of God. The dogs aren’t asking anything of the adults except to be with them. The adults want to pet the dogs, and in turn, the dogs are delighted to be the center of attention. This expression of unconditional love is goodness.” Pet therapy can also remind people that there’s more to life than the daily routine of the nursing home or assisted living community. The spiritual connection is very key. As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 1 said in a column, “My dog is a spiritual companion. He reminds me that we belong together, all living beings, human and animal, and even the trees. We are all part of creation, through which God’s sacred spirit flows.”

What does it take to be a therapy dog? There is a basic obedience test, then a special assessment to determine if the dog’s temperament is right for the task. Dogs are evaluated and certified by Therapy Dogs International. Their website specifically notes: “A Therapy Dog must have an outstanding temperament. This means that the dog should be outgoing and friendly to all people; men, women, and children.

The dog should be tolerant of other dogs (of both genders) and non-aggressive toward other pets.” Cathy Stein, Regional Evaluator for Therapy Dogs International, says, “Anyone with a dog should try it.” When asked if any breed is more well-suited than another, Stein answered jokingly: “No, we do not discriminate. We’ve certified pit bulls, Dobermans, all kinds.” For questions about dog evaluations, Cathy Stein welcomes calls at 847.217.0527.

And what’s it like to be a human Pet Therapy volunteer? For Sue Kruesi, it was a simple decision: “I’d been a single mom, and felt I’d been very blessed. So I realized it was time to give back a little. A friend told me about CJE’s need for Pet Therapy volunteers, and I knew immediately that it was for me!” It’s also obvious from Weinberg Community volunteer Stu Unger’s poetic rhapsody about Pet Therapy that he receives even more than he gives when his three Shepherds visit the residents.

There could be some future financial benefits also, according to Dr. Alan Beck, Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. 2 He predicts that we might see some acceptance of animal care as a legitimate healthcare expense or insurance policies offering coverage for services such as veterinary care for pets of the elderly. Possibly, pet owners could receive insurance discounts similar to the deals given to non-smokers. As if we needed any more incentive to own a pet!

CJE is in need of volunteers to visit with their Certified Therapy Dogs at Lieberman Center, Weinberg Community and Adult Day Services Evanston. Contact us to volunteer with your dog (or dogs) and bring some joy into older adults’ lives. Call Volunteer Services at 847.929.3040 or email volunteers@cje.net.

1 Wittenberg, Rabbi Jonathan. What the rabbi learned from his dogs. Jewish Chronicle. September 19, 2017.
2 Weaver, Jane. Puppy Love—It’s better than you think.
Pet health. http://www.nbcnews.com.