Canines offer portable love

Visits: Volunteers take their animals to retirement homes, giving residents a dose of four-legged affection.

April 29, 2003|By Jessica Valdez | Jessica Valdez,SUN STAFF

Clutching the kitchenette counter for balance, Lillian Fried weakly bends to pat a 55-pound white dog sprinkled with sandy-colored specks.

"I have something for you," says Fried, a resident of Brighton Gardens, an assisted-living community in Columbia. She fumbles to open a bag of dog treats and then hesitatingly holds out a handful of dog biscuits. "I bought these just for you, Kismet," she says as she happily watches the dog lick the treats from her trembling hand.

"Kismet enjoys the attention, and people enjoy being with her," says Kismet's owner, Elliot Shefrin, as he firmly grasps the leash.

Wearing a blue Pets on Wheels T-shirt, he adds that he and Kismet have been volunteering for Pets on Wheels for about a year. Shefrin and Kismet visit Brighton Gardens twice a month as volunteers for the Howard County Pets on Wheels program, which sends volunteers and their pets to nursing homes and assisted-living communities.

"Our mission is to provide pet visitation for the elderly," said Tricia Robson, program coordinator.

More than 55 pets and their owners participate in the program, breaking the monotony and solitude of residents' lives.

"The pets reach out to residents in a special way," said Sheila Kiani, director of activities at Brighton Gardens. "It's a common thread. It allows them the opportunity to express a little about themselves."

Lori Yancey, who volunteers with her daughters at Heartlands Retirement Community in Ellicott City, said the pets often encourage residents to speak about their pets. "It's an ice breaker, and I think there's something therapeutic about it," she said. "They look on these dogs with fond memories of their animals."

Thelma Hoffa-Krainak and her Shetland sheep dog, Tex, have been volunteering at Brighton Gardens since the home opened four years ago. "I think more people respond to dogs," she said. "Everybody feels the dog is nonjudgmental."

She takes treats on her weekly visits so residents can bribe Tex to do tricks.

Not every pet can visit assisted-living homes. Animals must pass a behavior and health evaluation before they can participate in the program.

"We look for pets that are confident and outgoing and not shy in new situations because the places we're sending them to are so different than their home," said Robson. "[We want] pets that you would have to stress so much before they scratch or bite."

The animals are put through a temperament test, said Shefrin, in which Robson and an assistant purposefully stress or annoy the pet to see how it will react. They can determine how the dog is going to act in any situation, Shefrin said, and this ensures the pet will not be rough with elderly residents who might not know how to behave around animals.

At Sommerford Place, a resident stepped on Kismet's ear. While many dogs would respond by biting, Kismet whined until Shefrin asked the resident to move. Most Pets on Wheels participants are dogs, except for three cats, said Robson.

Howard County Pets on Wheels was founded by the Office on Aging in 1982 and is now independent of the government, said Robson, although it receives a grant from the county that provides less than one half of its operating costs.

"The Howard County organization is a program loosely connected to Pets on Wheels Inc., which oversees the programs across the country," said Robson. She said volunteers share the relationship they have with their dogs with others.

"[They know] how much enjoyment they get from their pet and they want to share it with other people," Robson said.

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