A Little Pet Goes A Long Way
By Ann Needle
“You could say the COA has gone to the dogs,” joked COA Director Alyson Toole, referring to a program that provides a chance for several canines to spend time, bringing cheer, comfort, and laughs to Stow seniors.
About once a month, the COA brings in a passel of “therapy dogs” to frolic and rest with clients for an hour or so. According to Toole, the dogs make for terrific emotional therapy for seniors, many who can no longer take care of pets of their own or are not allowed to have a pet in their current residence.
A look around the COA’s Friendship Room during a recent doggie visiting hour showed everyone there, from two legs to four, to be in good spirits. Dogs large and small wandered among the participants, with the humans taking turns holding, petting, feeding, even chatting to the canines.
Toole proudly pointed out that the dogs and humans are considered equal in the eyes of the COA, with separate tables of appetizers for canines and humans. The dogs also had their share of toys scattered about the room. When not playing with the toys or tussling with each other, the dogs roamed freely, gracefully accepting offers to be pet or snuggled on a lap or two.
“Knock on wood, they all seem to get along,” Toole observed.
Smiling and sitting peacefully among the hubbub were Elaine Murphy and Ginny McDavitt, each holding father and son, Lupo and Blue. “Aren’t they wonderful?” Murphy marveled, stroking Blue’s smooth brown-and-white coat. Lupo and Blue did what they do best, submitting to the stroking and gazing at visitors with their wide brown eyes.
Across the way, a beaming Bud and Pauline Chase stroked the muzzle of Golden Retriever Rocky. Toole explained that the Chases are two of the many former dog caretakers for who the COA dogs bring back memories. “We used to have a big German Shepherd,” Bud reminisced.
Visiting dogs come from all over town, from residents to a few members still able to care for a pet, Toole said. “If someone said they once had a Golden [Retriever], I try to make sure we have one here,” she noted.
In fact, the COA’s “outreach dog”, Rocky, is a Golden Retriever, belonging to Outreach Coordinator Sharon Funkhouser. Toole explained that Funkhouser uses Rocky in her work of making connections with seniors who may be alone or new to town. When Funkhouser schedules an initial visit with a new COA client, Toole explained that she asks if the person would enjoy meeting Rocky.
“He’s been a big hit,” Toole commented. For the more home-bound seniors, “We’re getting calls, asking if Rocky can come visit.”
Some COA clients share the dogs they rely on for more than emotional support. Lisa Dubois said her curly-haired Taz
has been her lifeline since losing much of her sight. Though Taz already was a fixture in her house, Dubois noted that, once her sight began slipping away, her daughter trained Taz as a guide dog to help Dubois travel through her home safely.
In some cases, these dogs are simply returning the favor, in honor of the humans that have helped them.
Stow Assistant Assessor Louise Nejad showed off Phoenix, who received her name for obvious reasons, once hearing the story of how the dog came to live with Nejad. After Phoenix was struck by a vehicle on Great Road, she was taken to Apple Country Animal Hospital by Animal Control Officer Susan Latham, and placed on life support.
“No one would claim her,” Nejad sighed. But, once the pooch was back in action, Phoenix was brought to Town Hall by Latham for visits, and Latham always seemed to swing by Nejad’s office. “She could sense I might take her,” Nejad laughed of the dog resurrected from disaster.
Other COA canines have their personalities. Dorothy Sonnichsen proudly coaxed some tricks out of her prize-winning show dog Plato. Her collie Sonia – truly a “Lassie” look-alike — traveled the room like a true ambassador. None of the canines shied from visitors or growled to be left alone.
Toole explained that the COA program began about 5 years ago, when, looking for a new activity, she recruited local children and their parents to bring their dogs by the COA for socializing and companionship, calling the program “The Dog Days of Summer.” The program soon became a COA fixture.
Toole said she got that idea from her days as a nursing home director. She would bring her Golden Retriever, Jake, to work, where the dog seemed to bring smiles to many of the residents. With a Golden’s average life span often under 10 years, Toole said, “Jake lived to 16; I think he had a real purpose in life.”
The COA dog visits usually take place once a month, and can be found on the calendar in the COA’s monthly newsletter. The calender also is listed at http://www.stow-ma.gov/Pages/