Judy Haber-Stone adjusts a clover-patterned bandanna on Guinness, a 6-year-old black-and-tan border collie mix, outside The John J. Hainkel Jr. Home and Rehab Center in Uptown. Guinness sits patiently, only raising his tan eyebrows when another dog walks close by.
For two years, Haber-Stone has volunteered with the Visiting Pet Program, which sends more than 120 pets to comfort patients at more than 20 facilities in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes. The program was founded in 1987 and is the area's oldest-running animal-assisted activity and therapy program. Hainkel Home is a regular stop.
"There are 150 beds there," says program president Lee Gaffney. "Multiply that at two times a month over 21 years. That's a lot of people.
"Our goal is to simply brighten someone's day," she says. "If we get a smile, we get a conversation, that could be huge."
Program coordinator Claire Sommers, who has volunteered with the program since 2000, guides Parker, a 5-year-old whippet who is wearing green clover beads. Inside Hainkel Home, a group of residents greets the dogs in a recreation room.
Anna Christiana, who owned the former Christiana's Seafood on Oak Street, turns in her wheelchair to meet Parker, who calmly approaches her and rests his head in her hands. "The residents really come to learn who's here all the time," Sommers says.
Leslie Davis, who has volunteered with the program for 20 years, picks up Bacchus, a black 7-year-old dachshund and retired Westminster Kennel Club show dog. "This is so much more rewarding," Davis says. Davis carries Bacchus to several residents, and the former show dog welcomes the attention.
"He remembers you," Davis says.
Therapy animals have helped relieve stress and raise spirits at children's hospitals and nursing homes for decades. In 1945, the American Humane Association created a therapy dogs program for World War II veterans, and in 1976, Elaine Smith formed Therapy Dogs International, which is still the longest-running (and largest) therapy dog organization in the U.S., with more than 24,000 registered therapy teams.
In 2001, the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that animal-assisted therapy greatly enhances elderly patients' general well-being and socialization. At the 2010 International Conference of Human-Animal Interactions, researchers announced that interacting with animals releases the hormone oxytocin, which boosts feelings of love and trust. The National Institute of Health has studied human-animal interaction for years and has research programs under its National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to find what impacts human-animal interaction has on public health and even disease prevention.
In 1984, a San Diego, Calif., group founded the pet-provided therapy organization Love on a Leash, which now has more than 50 chapters across the U.S., including one based in St. Tammany Parish.
Sandy McMurtry established the St. Tammany chapter of Love on a Leash in 2011 when she realized there were no Louisiana chapters where she could offer the services of her Great Dane, Roxy.
"I took her places with me, and because of her size and how friendly she was, I'd meet strangers," Mcurtry says. "Then a crowd would form, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this dog has the capacity to make connections with people. ... I cannot be the only one in the area.'"
The chapter now has 40 "pet therapy" teams (each made up of a volunteer and his or her pet) which visit several schools, nursing homes and Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Centers, as well as events hosted by St. Tammany Association for Retarded Citizens (STARC). (The chapter also is helping launch another in Hammond.) Each dog and its owners attend an orientation and assessment, followed by certified dog trainers evaluating the animals for temperament and obedience. If the dogs pass, they must attend 10 supervised site visits with chapter members before certification.
"It creates a whole social comfort break in their day," McMurtry says of the residents. "They get so excited when the dogs come. It's a break in their usual routine to sit and pet and have a conversation with someone who will listen. ... A lot of times they've had pets all their lives and no longer have them."
Love on a Leash also offers a certified Reading Education Assistance Dog (READ) program, which certifies dogs to sit with children learning to read. READ programs were launched in 1999 and have grown to more than 3,000 reading therapy teams in the U.S. Love on a Leash is the only READ-certified reading therapy program in Louisiana. The idea is simple: Children read aloud with a dog as a reading companion. They don't have to fear snickering from classmates for their stutters or reading apprehension — the dogs offer comfort.
Love on a Leash also has teamed with St. Tammany Parish libraries for reading events with elementary school children and READ-certified dogs.
"The learning of reading becomes something to do for fun rather than with a critical eye," McMurtry says. "They get to pick out a book and practice their reading skills."
The Visiting Pet Program offers a similar service, Reading to Rover, which partners with literacy program Start the Adventure in Reading (STAIR) and offers reading events at Orleans and Jefferson parish libraries on a Saturday each month. (As a reward for their listening, the dogs are offered a treat from their readers.)
"Dogs don't laugh," Sommers says.
When the Visiting Pet Program began in 1987, it served under the Louisiana SPCA with the shelter's pets as its therapy animals. The program became a 501c3 nonprofit organization in 2000 and earned the LA/SPCA's Dorothy Dorsett Brown Humanitarian Award in 2004. Besides dogs, its therapy teams also include cats, guinea pigs and rabbits.
"When it started, there were seven of us and only 12 facilities, and we went to them once a year," says Gaffney, who has volunteered with the program for 21 years. "Now we have 120 volunteers."
Volunteers and their pets must attend orientations (offered in the summer and fall) and pass a pet handler evaluation ("basically a mock nursing home environment," Gaffney says), a temperament test, and probationary period where handlers and their animals make four visits to facilities. Upcoming orientation days for new volunteers are 10 a.m. to noon June 15, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. July 14 and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 19.
Animal handlers must be at least 18 years old — and there are some prerequisites for the animals before they can provide therapy. Animal "therapists" must have a friendly disposition and be sociable with adults, children and other animals, have basic obedience training, be at least one year old, up to date on required shots and be comfortable with strange smells and sounds (like yells and hospital equipment). "People pet animals in strange ways sometimes," Gaffney says.
Gaffney remembers visiting a hospital room where a teen girl had been waiting for the therapy dogs to arrive — she petted them and giggled. "She had refused any treatment and had never gotten out of bed," Gaffney says. "When she heard pets were coming, she got up and waited in the hall for us." Gaffney also recalls a visit to a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease who only said "bright eyes" as she petted the dogs: "The nurse said that that woman hadn't spoken in weeks."
Gaffney and other volunteers easily list emotional anecdotes from their visits, each seemingly as simple as walking their dogs but with the immeasurable compassion that only a pet can provide.
"Animal-assisted activity is what we do," Gaffney says. "It's not goal-oriented. We don't have to go through X-Y-Z to get results. ... We don't see muscular development or coordination. We just see smiles.
"A lot of times it's not about the patients — it's about the family in the room who's been there for days and days. And the nurses and doctors love it."
Pat Egers was inspired to volunteer with Maggie, her 5-year-old mixed breed dog, when Egers' family members were admitted to East Jefferson and Touro hospitals, where therapy animals visited them. "People just light up when they see the dogs," Egers says.
Bacchus trots on the beige and peach tiles on Hainkel Home's second floor, where Easter and St. Patrick's Day decorations and floral portraits hang on the walls. Visiting Pet Program volunteer Davis knocks on each door, asking, "Would you like to meet my dog?"
June Walton, who taught in New Orleans schools for 30 years, waits in her room for Bacchus. Davis enters with two Langenstein's paper bags full of books and Bacchus in tow. Davis makes regular visits to Walton and always brings books — Walton has a growing collection in two boxes at the foot of her bed. Bacchus, who has visited with Walton numerous times, rests his nose on her arm and licks her hand.
In the hall, Cuyahoga the Weimaraner sits and waits for his turn inside a room. Volunteer Creevy Clay assists Karen Terry and Fiona, a quiet Papillon mix that is in the middle of a mandatory probationary visit before the program makes her a full member of the team.
Terry walks Fiona into Walton's room to meet her for the first time.
"You do a lot for us," Walton tells Terry. "We're smiling all day long.