by Karen Plourde
Alicia and Gene Harantschuk have witnessed the difference a dog can make in the life of someone with special needs. Alicia’s dad, James Jeffries, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for years, but she believes having a Rottweiler and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to care for gave him something to focus on other than his illness.
“My dad, from the back door to the steps, if he was going to get something, he couldn’t remember,” she said, “but he would look at his clock and say, ‘We gotta feed Topper’(the King Charles).”
After Jeffries died in 2011, Alicia and Gene, residents of Wyndmoor, wanted to do something constructive to honor his memory. More than three years, two dogs and a year of obedience training and testing later, they’re regular pet visitors with Comfort Caring Canines (CCC), an all-volunteer local organization that’s been incorporated since the early 1990s.
CCC brings dogs to residents of assisted living facilities, children at day care centers and other places where their presence can help others, according to Bob Dettery, a resident of Hatfield and president of the group. Members have brought their dogs to college campuses during finals week to help de-stress the students and to elementary schools to work with children who are having reading difficulties.
“They [the children] read their stories or books to the dogs, and the dogs are non-judgmental,” said Dettery, 61,who brings his nine-year old miniature Australian Shepherd, Samantha, along on visits. “It gives the children an incentive to practice without fear of some type of failure.”
The Harantschuks’ journey to become pet visitors had to start from square one; they didn’t have a dog. Alicia searched Pet Finder for three months, then saw a photo of Olivia, a Dachshund, online. and drove to Upstate New York to meet her. “They didn’t even have her out of the kennel yet, and I went, ‘Yeah, I’ll take her, and if the other one’s a girl, I’ll take that one,’” she recalled.
Alas, the other Dachshund was a male. Also, because the breed tends to be stubborn and not used to working with their owners, Alicia, 43, had doubts as to whether Olivia would make a good therapy dog. They decided to keep Olivia but then went to Main Line Animal Rescue in Phoenixville to look for an older Labrador as their second dog.
“Gene kept saying, ‘Did you see that Pit Bull puppy in the front room?’ … But I’m like, we have these older dogs, and they need a home, and [they] kind of go with what we’d like to do,” she said. “And he goes, ‘I don’t know, that Pit Bull puppy is calling my name.’ So we spent two days with the rescue, and we got the two of them together, and we came home with a Pit Bull puppy. And they have both turned out to be amazing.”
Following a year’s worth of training, Vegas (the two-year old Pit Bull mix) and Olivia (the almost three-year-old Dachshund), were tested on their temperament and obedience by CCC. Dettery said the group tries to do these evaluations four times a year; the fee is $35.
“…They’re gonna pull ears, pull their tail, open up their mouth, put their hand in their mouths…they’re gonna use a walker, someone’s gonna go up to them with a wheelchair…” Alicia said.
For the obedience portion, dogs have to heel on a leash and do a 90-second “sit/stay” command or a 90-second “down/stay.” Once CCC clears a dog for the program, its owners will get a list of facilities that have requested visits. There are about 60 active members in CCC right now, and Dettery said he gets at least one new request a week from various facilities or programs.
The Harantschuks decided early on to go beyond the typical pet visit. “We wanted to make connections with people,” Alicia said. “We just kind of wanted to take them away from what’s going on.” So they decided to teach their dogs to perform in front of a group. Vegas now knows about 75 commands, including tricks and obedience, and Olivia can do 25-30 commands. Their collection of maneuvers includes everything from Vegas playing basketball to Olivia weaving in and out of a walker to Olivia jumping through a hoop or over Vegas. The dogs and Gene and Alicia go to between two and four facilities per month; they were recently approved to start making visits at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Alicia, who works in the hedge fund department at Morgan Stanley during the week, has found the visits help her stay connected to her dad. “I think it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life,” she said. “You meet everybody, from nurses to activities directors to the residents, and it’s elderly and children and intellectually challenged. It’s a wide range, but yet, what we’re doing connects with everybody.” Her husband, 55, is a driver for Riders Club Cooperative.
Every now and then, a volunteer will be a witness to a breakthrough from a client or resident that happens because of their dog, according to Dettery, a semi-retired regulatory consultant to the pharmaceutical industry. “One person I had Samantha visit had not spoken for months,” he recalled. “When she started touching the dog, she started saying, ‘Nice dog, nice dog.’ The staff there was amazed because it was the first thing that she had said in a long time.”
Norm Vetter, a consulting therapist who co-coordinates a weekly activity program for intellectually challenged adults at Northwestern Human Services (NHS) in Mt. Airy, feels the visits from the Harantschuks and their dogs bring excitement and stimulation to a group whose members are often isolated.
“When they bring the dogs, I think the group experiences what we all experience with pets, which is unconditional love,” he said. “The dogs are friendly and welcoming, and they respond to people paying attention to them, and having that kind of response back is very validating for the members of the group.”
Alicia advises dog owners who want to get into pet therapy to do their homework and take it from there. “If you need a little bit of work, there are places that can help you,” she said. “You can take an obedience class…if you think your dog has the temperament to do it, do it. There’s just nothing that I’ve had that you can compare to it.”