The Good Dogs of Claverack
by Rebecca Stowe
Finding Waldo is not a problem at Columbia Memorial Hospital. He’s the furry fellow with the blue scarf, lumbering through the hallways on the 2nd and 4th floors as he does his “rounds,” or comforting people waiting their turn in the Emergency Room. He’s the 175- pound bundle of fur lying on his back, kicking his legs happily while a patient rubs his big belly. Like the doctors and nurses, Waldo is a healer too, a healer of hearts.
Waldo the St. Bernard, and his human partner Dodi Diamond, are one of the six teams of Good Dog Foundation volunteers from Claverack. I met Dodi a year and a half ago when I signed up for training with my dog, Blaise. Of the four teams in that class, three of us were from Churchtown – Dodi and Waldo, Patty Martin and her black Lab, Jack, and me and my Springer Spaniel, Blaise, who happens to be the only canine in the group who is a Claverack native. He’s also a rescue dog, adopted from Columbia Greene Humane Society.
None of us knew exactly what to expect when we began training, but we all thought our dogs would make good Therapy Dogs, and we all wanted to give back to the community in some way. Dodi summed it up for all of us when she said, “Having the chance to hang out with my dog and give something (back to people) at the same time; it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
DOGS AS HEALERS
I personally have never doubted the power of animals to heal. I had a rather troubled childhood, and I felt my dog Coco was the only creature on the planet who understood me. When the allergist told my mother that the dog “had to go,” I sat on the examination table, my thighs pocked with allergen bubbles, defiantly (and melodramatically – I was 13) declaring, “If Coco goes, I go!”
As it turned out, we didn’t need to run away. I got a series of shots and Coco got groomed more often, and I can say with absolute certainty that that dog saved my sanity throughout my childhood and adolescence. She was my psychologist, my best friend, my confidante, my companion. Why anyone needs an official study to “prove” that animals have the ability to heal us emotionally is beyond me, but for the skeptics, the studies now exist. In universities and research institutes all over the world, study after study shows that what people have known anecdotally for centuries turns out to be true: animals can help people heal faster, better, more thoroughly. Right now, the National Institutes of Health have several ongoing studies on the effects animals have on patients undergoing chemotherapy. There are dogs trained to recognize and alert people with epilepsy that a seizure is imminent. Children in reading assistance programs are increasing their reading scores by as many as 45 points by reading to dogs. Even the Pentagon has gotten into the act – they’ve recently deployed dogs to Tikrit and Mosul to provide emotional support for the troops.
Waldo and Dodi
Dodi Diamond has always loved animals. She grew up on a farm in Dutchess County, where they always had horses and ponies and at least one dog. She knew from childhood that she wanted to work with animals, and began learning how to train horses as a working student at age 14. Add five children and two husbands (not at the same time, (of course)), a move to Ancramdale and then to Churchtown, and Dodi is still working with animals. She’s a riding instructor, and she’s worked for many years at Empire Stud during foaling time. She also drives a school bus, where her training skills no doubt come in very handy.
Dodi always wanted to do some kind of volunteer work. “We have so much,” she said, “and there are so many who don’t.” She was considering several options when she read about the Good Dogs. “My world has revolved around animals my whole life,” she said, “and if I were in a hospital, especially long-term, I can’t imagine not seeing an animal, and I can’t imagine anything that would make me feel better. I really don’t think there’s any medicine like it.”
There was one case in particular where Waldo’s presence made a big impact. “There was a man,” Dodi told me, “who had been placed in a drug-induced coma – I don’t know what was wrong with him; I don’t ask — and they were waiting for him to wake up. The nurse said he loved dogs and asked me to bring [Waldo] in. Waldo nuzzled his head under the man’s hand and the nurse was yelling his name, saying, ‘Do you hear us? Do you know we’re here? We have this nice dog¼’ and all of a sudden she cried out, and I looked up and the man had one eye half-way open. She yelled his name again and said, ‘Do you see this nice dog? See the St. Bernard?’ And he smiled. A big smile, not even just one side of his face, his whole face lit up. The nurse ran off to look for the man’s family. When she came back she told me that people always ask her if Therapy Dogs do any good, and she said, ‘Now I have a story to tell.’”
Jack and Patty
The Macadam Discovery Room at the Fireman’s Museum is already dog-centric. One wall is painted with a mural full of Dalmatians illustrating rules of Fire Safety: Don’t Hide, Go Outside, and, Stop, Drop, and Roll. Pictures of Sparky, the fire-fighting Dalmatian, illustrate activity books, coloring sheets, and interactive games.
On Tuesday afternoons at 2:45, the back door opens and there’s a rush of feet – and paws – as the Good Dogs, their handlers, and the children from the Hudson Middle School After-School Program arrive, the children joyfully greeting the dogs, the dogs reciprocating with kisses and thumping tails.
Jack’s Full Warning, one of the two Good Dogs of Claverack to work in the After-School Program, is a jet black Labrador Retriever, a happy, friendly guy who loves to work. He comes bounding into the Museum, tail wagging, body quivering with excitement, and then settles down on a mat next to a 19th century Clapp and Jones steam engine drawn by a pair of big gray plastic horses. A child approaches and Jack puts his head in the child’s lap and listens while the child reads him a story.
Patty Martin and her husband Buzz Hartshorn, until recently of Schoolhouse Road (in Claverack,) have several hunting dogs: two Springers and Jack, the Lab. Patty was already taking her Springer puppy Wiley to Obedience classes with Susan Fireman, the Executive Trainer for the Good Dog Foundation in this area, and when she heard a new class was starting, she decided to try Jack out as a Therapy Dog. (“I thought this might be perfect,” she said. “If I wasn’t going to do this, I might have gone into Agility or something like that.) “The dogs just love to learn. They love to train and learn and work.” Jack and Patty volunteer at both the After-School Program and at the hospital and hospice. And Jack isn’t the only Good Dog in the family — Patty and her older Springer, Sunrise Seamus of Stuyvesant, began Good Dog training in January.
Sometimes we, as the human part of the team, forget just how much we’re asking of our dogs. It’s very stressful, going into a hospital full of strange noises and smells, with people rushing every which way and equipment clanging down the halls. For the After-School Program, we ask them to walk through a huge building full of bright red fire engines–without chasing or peeing on them–and then to lie patient as a stuffed Dalmatian while a child pats them and reads to them. What Patty was asking Jack to learn was not the hard physical work of the field trials, but the even harder work of self-restraint. “He had to learn how to be very calm,” Patty said, “and he’s showed me that he can (really) be both.”
Same for the children, Patty says. They’re young, they’re excitable, they’re full of energy, but the weight of a dog’s muzzle on their lap, or the stroking of warm, soft fur, serves to calm them, too. They learn respect for other beings, how to treat the animals, how to approach and interact with them. Like the dogs, they have to learn restraint as well. “Everybody’s happy,” Patty says. “The dog is happier, the children seem happier, it works out.”
Jack and Patty visit at the hospital and hospice, as well. When I ask her if her experiences have taught her anything about life in general, Patty pauses, and says, “Hospice has shown me what life is before death. Just before death. Prior to this, I’ve only been close to death with relatives, and you’re so emotionally involved, but being with people in the atmosphere of the hospice is so peaceful. I’m kind of changing my attitude about getting older and dying – I wouldn’t say it’s happy, but it’s (very) serene. (and very peaceful.) I see that death is not so scary; it’s not so sad; it’s very peaceful.”
Lily and Mary
The other Claverack Good Dog at the Museum on Tuesdays is Lily, a two-and-a-half year old yellow Lab, with spirit and plenty of it. To meet her when she’s out on her daily run at Philip’s Orchards racing through the trees, joyfully leaping into the pond, running circles around her doggie and human friends, you’d never believe she could slow down enough to lie still for forty minutes while a child reads to her.
But Lily’s human partner, writer and real estate broker Mary Mullane, knew that underneath that Lab ebullience was a first-rate Therapy Dog. Mary recognized Lily’s special nature when she saw how Lily switched from rambunctious to serene when Mary’s mother, who has dementia and other health problems, came to visit. Lily lay down at Mary’s mother’s feet and stayed there, gentle and still. Her mother turned to Mary and said, “This dog’s protecting me.” When two of Mary’s friends lost their respective parents, Lily again demonstrated her ability to read people. “She could tell they were upset,” Mary said, “and it was very clear she was comforting them. It’s like she has a sixth sense.”
Lily’s sixth sense comes into play with the children, too– she seems to know just how to act with each individual child. Barry (not his real name) was very shy and nervous when he first came to read to Lily and Mary. He turned “beet red,” Mary said, and Lily seemed to pick up on something. She began licking his ear while he read, and then licking his chin, and Barry became more embarrassed. Shyly, he turned to Mary and told her his dog had recently died in a car accident. Mary said, “Lily loves you,” and Barry finished his story and walked away. At the end of the day, the teacher came to Mary and said Barry wanted to say good-bye. “You could tell he had bonded with Lily,” Mary said, “but he was very bashful, very shy.”
Now, Lily is “his” dog. “The kids so look forward to [the dogs coming],” Mary says, “They love it so much. Particularly [Barry], who has really bonded with Lily, and really loves her. You can see him coming out of his shell more and more every week; he becomes less and less shy¼ and that’s the best part, really, seeing that it makes some kind of a difference.”
We don’t always get to see the difference the dogs make. To Instructor Laura Fisher, the best thing about the program is the compassion it brings out in the children. “They’re so caring, so concerned about the dogs, always asking about them. The kids are very positive about it, and they never complain about reading.” Laura points out something else we don’t see: the camaraderie that has developed between the children. “Kids who wouldn’t even talk to each other in school, talk to each other here. They’re meeting friends they wouldn’t [otherwise] meet; the dogs bring people together.”
Zeta and Heidi
Heidi Gerlach lives on Swiss Farms Road, between Claverack hamlet and Philmont, with her husband Rick, their two children, Meg and Austin, and their menagerie of five horses, three dogs, three cats, and a seasonal flock of ducks. She grew up right down the road, and she’s always had plenty of animals. As a kid, she worked for a large animal vet, and at one point she thought about becoming a veterinarian. She ended up healing humans instead, and now she works as a nurse on the Medical Imaging unit at Columbia Memorial Hospital.
Heidi gets up at 5:30 every morning to feed her five horses, clean their stalls, and ride; then she exercises, does chores, cleans up and¼ goes to work. Over the years, she had seen Therapy Dogs at the hospital. “People just flocked to them,” she said, and when she got her Corgi puppy Zeta, she thought, “wouldn’t it be great if I could go to the hospital and see patients, and bring my dog, too?”
Zeta – her namesake is Catherine Zeta-Jones – is definitely a star. She has a bright, responsive face, and a ton of personality packed into her compact body. Her pricked ears make her look as if she’s always interested in what you’re saying, and she prances down the corridors on her little legs, to the appreciative “ooohs” and “ahhhhs” of her audience of patients and staff. She’s a favorite with the staff – they love all the dogs, but Zeta is small enough to pick up and cuddle, and she has that expressive, understanding look on her face.
“The staff get more out of [the dogs’ visits] than the patients, I think sometimes,” Heidi says. And why not? Health care is hard work, with a lot of stress and huge responsibilities. Once, when I was visiting with my dog Blaise, a doctor came out of a room, got down on the floor, and threw his arms about Blaise. “I just needed to hug a dog,” he said, and got up and continued on his way.
Heidi sees this all the time. I like to share [Zeta] (her) ‘cause she’s such a love.”
Dandy and Marilyn
Everyone at Columbia Memorial knows Marilyn MacKay. Over the past four decades, she’s volunteered in just about every capacity, from running the snack bar to serving, at various times, as Co-President, Vice-President, and Secretary of the Hospital Auxiliary. In addition, she’s what she calls a “Girl Guide” – she gives directions and help at the Information Desk. So when she heard, from Hospital Foundation director Keith Lampman, about the Good Dog training, she jumped at the chance for more.
Marilyn and her late husband bought and updated – “not renovated,” she insists — the old Kittle Farm in Claverack. She’s been in Claverack for forty years, with the exception of a brief flirtation with Florida. “I like to volunteer, and I like to help,” Marilyn says, “And I love to be with dogs, so I thought this would be wonderful.” It’s not her first time. Through her church, the Reformed Dutch Church of Claverack, she used to visit Pine Haven and Barnwell nursing homes with her Maltese, Vanilla. “Vanilla would get right on the bed,” Marilyn said, “and they’d hug her like she was a toy. She’d run from one room to the other, and then when she was ready to go home, she’d run to the front door.”
Eventually, Vanilla lost the use of her back legs, but that didn’t stop their visits. Marilyn wheeled Vanilla around the nursing home in a baby stroller. “I’d say, ‘See? You’re in a wheelchair and my dog has her own little wheelchair.’ They enjoyed that.” Marilyn, who was once co-owner of a modeling agency, is always impeccably dressed, coifed, and accessorized. She must have been a source of delight, strolling down the hall, dressed to the nines, pushing a dog in a baby carriage.
A couple of years ago, Marilyn had to have Vanilla put to sleep. Then one day, at church, she made an announcement. “You know I lost Vanilla a couple of months ago,” she began, and before she had even finished, a young woman shouted “God has answered your prayers! I have a dog for you!” “Everybody started to laugh,” Marilyn said, “but I was very nervous. I thought, ‘My God, what kind of a dog is it?’ I said, “All right, let me meet her. So she brought the dog over ¼ and in one hour I fell in love.”
Her name was Dutchess, but she’s a small, shaggy, button-nosed dog, part Dandy Dinmont and part Wheaton terrier, who looks “more like a Benjy than a Dutchess,” so Marilyn re-named her Dandy. She’s a very sweet dog, utterly obedient – she barely needed training at all. As with all the teams, it’s the human who needs most of the training , not only in handling the dog, but in handling people, abiding by rules of confidentiality, making sure the dog is properly groomed, learning how to identify the dog’s limits, and finally, how to handle awkward or difficult situations.
When I asked Marilyn what she liked most about volunteering, she said, “The camaraderie. Everybody who does it, wants to do it. I like to say, it’s not the job you have to go to; it’s the job you love to go to.”
Blaise and Me
My dogs – I have two – make me a better human, no doubt about it. I learn something from them every day – something about kindness, something about happiness, something about living in the moment, something about devotion, something about giving with all one’s heart.
The work I do with Blaise is as therapeutic for me as it is for the people we serve. Without Blaise, it would never occur to me to visit strangers at the hospital, or to sit quietly with a patient in hospice, or to get to know the folks at the New Leaf Club. It’s one thing to walk down a hospital corridor with a dog, and to stick your head in the door and say, “Hi! This is Blaise, the therapy dog. Would you like a visit?” and quite another to say, “Hi! I’m Becky! I’m a person! Would you like a visit?”
An eight-year-old English Springer Spaniel with long-lashed brown eyes, big droopy ears, and a short, perpetually wagging tail, Blaise comforts–he gives love, he makes people laugh with his tricks. Patients, and their families, tell me about their pets—dogs, cats, horses, pets they had growing up, pets they have loved. Blaise’s presence gives them a little relief, a momentary respite from worry or pain, and I’m always amazed by how grateful they are. It’s such a small thing we do, but it gives such great joy.
But Blaise’s favorite place to visit is the New Leaf Club, a club for people rebuilding their social and work skills, run by the Mental Health Association of Columbia-Greene Counties. AS A RESCUE, Blaise (as a rescue,) came with a few flaws–he whines, for example, and it takes him a little longer than the other dogs to warm up to people. But his flaws are actually an asset at New Leaf; he’s a constant reminder that one doesn’t need to be perfect to succeed. His friendliness, joy, and willingness to perform – he loves to show off – more than make up for his little tics. As soon as we open the door, the room erupts in cries of “Blaise!” The happiness he brings is palpable. He makes his rounds greeting people, and then he jumps in a chair and sits at the table, making everyone laugh as he looks around as if to say, “When does the party start?” His mere presence breaks the conversational ice, and people who otherwise are shy or withdrawn always have something to say to Blaise. Some people just like to pet him, others like to toss him a biscuit or watch him perform his Rally exercises. Debby has discovered a skill she didn’t know she had–she’s taught him several new tricks–and he’s helped Betty to develop new confidence by overcoming her fear of dogs. She had always admired Blaise from afar but didn’t interact with him because of her fear. But recently, when Blaise was sitting in a chair at the table, staring at the Trivial Pursuit board as if he wished someone would come play with him, Betty came over and sat across the table from him. She told me why she was afraid of dogs and then asked if she could come over and sit by Blaise. “Of course,” I said and she came over, sat down, and began to slowly and tentatively touch him. Her small white hands trembled at first as she stroked him. “Good Blaise,” she said, “Good Blaise.” He sat there, gently patient, and Betty’s face filled with happiness. Her hands were still when she reached around and hugged him. “I love you, Blaise,” she said.
And he loves everyone at New Leaf. As Debby said the first time I visited, “The dogs give unconditional love. They don’t care what you look like or what you’re wearing or whether you’ve had a bad day. They just love you.”
SO YOU WANT TO BE A GOOD DOG?
There are a number of organizations that offer certification for animal therapy work (including The Delta Society (www.deltasociety.org), Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org ), the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program (www.akc.org ), as well as many regional organizations.) The Brooklyn-based Good Dog Foundation, founded in 1999 by Rachel McPherson, serves the area from Manhattan to Columbia County, including parts of New Jersey, western Massachusetts, and Connecticut. The Good Dog Foundation is unique in that it provides volunteer teams with an intensive training program in both Obedience and Therapy Work, and then places the volunteer in a suitable program. Susan Fireman, the Regional Manager and Executive Trainer for our area, provides ongoing support to all the teams. Although services are provided free to the organizations served, volunteers pay a one-time fee for insurance and training, which includes free refresher training for the life of the dog.
Almost all of the local Good Dog teams serve at Columbia Memorial Hospital and at hospice. Additionally, local Good Dog teams serve at the Mental Health Association of Columbia-Greene Counties and the Hudson Middle School After-School Program. New projects are in the works with the Alternative Learning Program at the old Claverack School, and with a joint project of MHACGC and John L. Edwards Elementary School.
The first thing a dog who wants to be a Good Dog volunteer has to do is pass a temperament test, given by Fireman. “There can be no history of aggression towards people,” she says, “and no real aggression toward dogs.” There is a difference between a dog that is truly dog-aggressive and one that just needs to be taught manners. The latter, if they have the right temperament, can be taught proper canine manners in Obedience class. The dog has to be willing to please and to be trainable.
“We’re always looking for people with a love of animals who want to do good work through their animals,“ Fireman says. “And we have more programs starting, so we need more volunteer teams. If you have a dog that you love, that can do this, it will be the best hour a week or hour a month you can ever spend.”
I interviewed a Good Dog wannabe, Malteazer, a beautiful nine-month-old Norfolk Terrier, who is hoping to grow up to be a Good Dog. She’s a willing, eager young lady, all of fifteen pounds, with a gorgeous brindle coat. She’s currently taking Obedience classes to get the skills she needs to start Good Dog training. She lives right in the hamlet of Claverack, with her person Fayal Greene.
Q: Maltie, do you think you have the right stuff to be a Good Dog?
A: She says, “it’s a little hard for me to be patient when people want me to ‘stay’ but I’m learning now that I’m nine months old. And I’m never, ever rough.”
Q: And that’s important for a Good Dog. What do you think a Good Dog needs to be?
A: A Good Dog needs to be a loving dog that will mind when it’s important. And not too bouncy at first.
Q: What kind of therapy work would you like to do, Maltie?
A: Maltie would especially like to work with children. But she doesn’t know any old people. She’s probably okay around old people too.
As of now, Maltie IS hoping to get into the next class at the hospital.
Rebecca Stowe lives in Churchtown and is the author of a number of novels.