Puppy love in Brewerton

A squeaky ball, a sweeping room and chicken liver prepare dogs to provide patients with unconditional love in a distracting setting.

A bristly contractor broom with muted grey and black bristles meets the cold cement with a “fshhh.” It emits a throaty breath as it scratches along the floor. This is distraction number five--sweeping.

A Sunshine Friends, Inc. employee, lurches the noise-making cleaning device just inches past Ruger’s solid miniature pinscher body. His disproportionate, grapefruit-sized noggin darts to the right. His nubbed tail quivers. 

Tonight’s dog therapy class meets in the heat-less, plywood-walled garage of Cicero Animal Clinic in Brewerton. “Once he gives you eye contact,” a woman, her hands resting in the center pocket of a Toronto Maple Leaves hockey sweatshirt, tells Ruger’s owner, “Then give him a treat.” Ruger knows. His head revolves back to the same plane as his owner, but his eyes remain fixed on the broom even though he wants his chicken liver treat that looks like one of those 25-cent red gumballs from the mall that loses its flavor as soon as you bite into it.

The broom continues on, weaving by the four other dogs in the class. When it passes by Jetson, a one and a half-year-old shabby mutt with a toupee of black fur traipsing down his spine, his ears perk, but the reward outweighs the distraction. The block of bristles at the end of the broom shares an uncanny resemblance to Jetson’s untamed tail. 

“Alright give your dogs a break.  Pet them for a minute and then we’ll move on to the next exercise,” Canadian native, Danielle Basciano, says.

Basciano works with Sunshine Friends Inc., a program with more than 200 volunteers whose pets provide therapy services to more than 55 facilities in Central New York. More than 800 nursing home, assisted-living facility, hospital, and adult-day-care residents benefit from the healing of Sunshine-trained cats and dogs each month. 

Three volunteers founded the non-profit Sunshine friends in 1998 with just 10 dogs visiting only four facilities. “We had to beg to get in,” Basciano says. At the time, animal assisted therapy did not share the same acclaimed status as other forms of therapy. “Now we have waiting lists for both facilities and volunteers,” she says.

Tonight’s class focuses on SECS, which stands for sudden environmental changes. The hum of a moving hospital bed or the incessant beep of an oxygen tank alarm all can trigger dogs to panic.  Before Basciano’s coworker put the dogs to the broom test, she submitted them to a crinkling bag, a menacing fur hood, the bouncing of an oversized tennis ball, and the squeaking of the same ball. Eight volunteers signed up for the session, but only five made it to the second of five classes because of the snow. 

Tricia, a Sandra Bullock look-a-like chomping a stick of gum, beckons Basciano. “How do I get her not to bite my finger off, again?” Maggie, a fidgety Weimaraner (the breed famed for donning human arms in a Sesame Street skit) nibbles at Tricia’s clasped hand to nudge for a treat. “Wait for Maggie to make eye contact, then open your hand,” Basciano says. Maggie flicks her eyes a few times to meet her owner’s, but Tricia waits to reward until she reaches the slow two count that Basciano advises.

“Dogs don’t respond to us because they should,” Basciano says, “dogs respond to us because there’s something in it for them.”  In a hospital setting where distractions run rampant and conditions can transform in an instant when an emergency arises, these dogs need to fight the instinct to react, and instead trust the guidance of their owners. 

“Next week we’ll have some volunteers come in to act as nursing home patients to see how your dogs react,” Basciano says, “Does anyone have any questions?” After next week’s class, and the last two classes of the session, the dogs must pass an evaluation with Sunshine as well as an evaluation with each facility they enter.

Ruger leaves, followed by a black golden doodle sporting a serious Jehri curl, and Gracie, a sheepdog husky mix. Maggie stays to sniff her way into a box of goodies, and Jetson heaves himself into my lap to thrust his tongue into my open mouth. After he decides he completed kissing duty, he shuts his eyes and nuzzles his soft head into my chest while leaving a schmear of cold nose along my neck.  


Image courtesy Erich Ferdinand via Flickr Creative Commons.

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