On a snowy afternoon a week before Christmas, a therapy dog named Koko brought the gift of her presence to a New Jersey nursing home.
The beautiful Koko, four years old, fleetingly touched the lives of about 30 residents of a 70-bed nursing facility in Montclair, N.J. They were glad she came to visit.
You might have relatives or friends in a similiar facility who’ve been happy to meet a sensitive creature like Koko. The Alliance of Therapy Dogs brings dogs to hospitals, schools, and special needs centers in addition to nursing homes, and has 15,000 volunteers around the country. (Another organization, Service Dogs of America, is for dogs who help people with disabilities.)
Bruce Benway and his wife, Sangita, of Montclair, are not alliance members, but they are the proud owners of Koko, who is half Shiba Inu and half American Eskimo. She was trained as a therapy dog at an obedience school in Madison, N.J. and has been making therapy visits for a couple of months. “She’s a natural at it,” Benway said. “She’s always very calm and composed around strangers.”
Denise Ragno, the activity director of the facility, said she’s worked with therapy dogs since she came there in 2010. Koko and another dog make their rounds at the home once a month, and provide a welcome break in the residents’ routine.
“They like animals, kids, and music,” said Ragno, 63. “They just come out of where they are when they see the dogs.”
Here’s a glimpse at Koko’s therapeutic tour of the two-floor facility:
In a physical therapy gym at the start, a resident with a leg cast watched Koko chase a ball, and staff and residents applauded. A white-haired woman gave Koko a treat and Ragno said, “You’ve got a new friend.” The resident smiled and laughed at Koko.
As his dog met residents in a second room, Benway introduced himself to them, asked their names, and said “happy holidays.” A resident asked Koko for a paw, and he got it.
Ragno took Koko to another room, where a woman in a wheelchair leaned forward and fed the dog and then smiled when she took the treat. “It’s nice to see them laugh and smile,” said Benway, a 63-year-old writer who’s a friend of mine. We once took Koko for a run in a New York park where a baseball game was in progress, and she even charmed the ballplayers.
In a private room, the resident told Koko “you’re pretty.” And in a spacious room with awards and photos on the walls, its resident, Loretta Freeman, chatted with Ragno and enjoyed Koko. Freeman was a prominent educator, Ragno said, who writes poetry and would turn 97 the following week. “She’s unbelievable,” said Ragno, who herself was a warm, energetic presence as she guided Koko, on a leash, to greet the residents, then handed them the treats to give to their canine friend.
Back downstairs, Ragno pronounced the nearly-an-hour visit by Koko a success. As always, she said, when the residents saw and interacted with her, “even people who don’t smile, they smiled.”