It’s almost time for Armonk resident Tobie Di Pietro’s shift at The Bristal Assisted Living Facility. He stretches and gets into his uniform. As he enters the building, it’s clear that he’s a valued member of the Bristal family–he is greeted with excitement from both residents and staff alike, a small crowd has formed awaiting his arrival. Ready to get to work, he enthusiastically makes himself comfortable, curling up in the lap of one of the eager residents. Tobie is a therapy dog–an 8-year-old Havanese whose job is as simple as it is important- to bring joy, comfort and calm to the people he meets.
It is well-known (and scientifically proven) that interaction with pets has significant benefits to the psychological and physiological well-being of their human counterparts. Animals, and dogs especially, are said to reduce anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure, build confidence and encourage communication. As Tobie moves from lap to lap –27 in all–his impact is clear. Residents regale Tobie and his human partner Karen with stories of their own dogs, their grandchildren, their ailments, and even gossip about fellow residents. Smiles spread across faces as Tobie gently snuggles, stiffened hands relax with every stroke of his soft fur.
Tobie: A Havanese with Heart
Karen, Tobie’s owner, is a first-time dog owner and lifelong volunteer. She contends that the level of giving she experiences through Tobie is unmatched. “Sharing this with Tobie is truly something special, magical even,” she says. “Volunteering together leaves me on Cloud Nine–we connect with people on so many levels, it’s like Tobie seems to know what each person needs.”
This is even more evident in the “Reflections” wing, home to residents in the memory care program at the Bristal. “It’s incredible that the minute they see Tobie, they can recall the name of a childhood dog, or a story about a pet they used to have,” says Karen.
Maytha Ramirez, Director of Recreation at the Bristal, agrees. “It is so important in this community to have that positivity, energy and stimulation–the dynamic changes completely when Tobie enters the room. He gets them talking and brings so much happiness into their lives and their routine.”
In addition to the Bristal, Tobie and Karen volunteer at several county libraries, corporations including Pepsi and Amscan, and women’s shelters. “Tobie is my boyfriend,” exclaims one resident, pulling Tobie closer. She winks and whispers, “He really just comes here for me.”
Schnauzer Soothes Stressed Area Students
When Alexa Krugel was a sophomore at Horace Greeley High School, she started to feel the stress of the high-pressure, high-achieving environment. She soon came to realize that there was a lack of student-run organizations or initiatives to help alleviate this stress and address mental health issues and the stigmas that come with them. She took it upon herself to create such an outlet for her peers and called it the Mental Wellness Club. The club meets regularly throughout the school year, but around the time of midterms and final exams, they partner with the PTA for “Stress Less Week”. Open to all students, the week focuses on distracting, stress-reducing, mindful activities to allow them to decompress, including yoga, meditation, exercise and, of course, therapy dogs.
Enter a 92-pound giant schnauzer named Maus and his owner, Christine Meyer, who were participants since the club’s inception. Dogs are actually Christine’s business, as she is the owner of Wags N‘ Whiskers, a pet groomer and supply store in Chappaqua, a town staple since 1991.
“Maus’s presence was commanding, truly remarkable”, said Christine. “Physically he was just such a striking dog, people were drawn to him and had questions–what kind of dog he was, how his eyebrows grew so long–he was magnetic. He looked intimidating, but he was just a big mush.” Certified as a therapy dog at age 6, Christine says that he had no idea how large he was, and practically demanded attention, nudging closer to students, even leaning on them or sitting on them until they gave in and pet him. “Maus just KNEW what his role was. As humans we don’t necessarily know who is hurting, but dogs always do. It is a real gift to share my dog with others.”
“My favorite part of having Maus at Greeley was the sense of community he brought. I would always see students who were not friends petting him together and laughing over their common love of the dog,” said Elizabeth Mortati, another Greeley student and club member. “It was really sweet to see how Maus would lift everyone’s mood and bring students together.”
Sadly, Maus passed away this January at the age of 11. A fixture in Chappaqua and at the schools he visited, he touched and will be missed by many. His legacy will continue with his 4-year-old sister, another giant schnauzer named Freedom, who was recently certified.
Now a freshman at the University of Michigan, Alexa reflects on the positive experience and indelible impact Maus had on her and her fellow students, and what a positive addition he was to the program she started. “Maus brought so much joy- he was happy, he was comforting, and everyone loved him. He was a familiar face-people developed close relationships with him. Every time he came to the school our worries melted away for a moment.”
Pleasantville’s Skye Is Always Bright
You can’t help but grin when you meet Skye–a 3-year-old sheepadoodle (Old English Sheepdog/Poodle mix) who is a 60 pound shaggy poof of kindness, calm and love. Under all that fluff seems to be a knowing smile that, no matter what your mood, she has the power to brighten your day.
Skye’s owner Lynda Shenkman has had and loved many dogs. But the moment she met mellow, sweet Skye, she knew she was destined for therapy work. The mark of a therapy dog is its stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personality–basically Skye in a nutshell.
“We started our training with Skye early, when she was just over a year old,” says Shenkman. “It was clear right away that this was her calling, she knew right away what she needed to do. The minute she puts on her vest and bandana, she knows it’s time to work.”
Therapy dogs may be trained by just about anyone, but must meet set standards and be tested to be certified and registered and actively participate in a program.
Skye works primarily on college campuses and libraries–where kids build confidence by reading to her. She makes private home visits and is a popular resident of Pleasantville, where she can be seen getting pets and snuggles from neighbors on the street. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are encouraged to interact with a variety of people while they are on-duty.
Skye recently made her first trip to hospice, visiting a woman who had not spoken or communicated in days. Yet, the minute Skye entered the room, her eyes lit up, and she was even able to pet her once Skye every so gingerly offered her sweet, furry paw.
Sometimes, it seems, you just need a helping paw.