Sandy knows he should hand the tennis ball over to Frances. He wants to give her the tennis ball. But you can tell by his slightly raised, Golden Retriever eyebrows that he’s skeptical that she’s going to throw it as quickly as he’d like.
“Give me the ball!” Frances demands playfully.
True to his loveable breed’s form, he drops it into Frances’ outstretched hand and trusts that she’ll stop her teasing and give it another toss across the community room rug for him to fetch again.
Sandy takes the long way around the circle of other residents of Arden Courts in Pikesville before making
his way back to Frances, who will make him work once again for his beloved tennis ball.
Sandy, an 11-year-old Golden, visits the residents of the assisted living facility on Reisterstown Road once a week as part of a therapy program. The residents there primarily have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and bringing in pets like Sandy gives the residents sensory stimulation.
“It’s amazing to me that many of these dementia patients are able to recall – maybe not details – but can remember that a dog came in to visit today. They may not remember what year it is, but they will really respond to have a dog come in to visit,” said Amy Krause, program services coordinator for Arden Courts.
Many of the residents also had to leave pets behind when they moved out of their independent homes, so this is a chance to have interaction with animals they miss, she said.
“Especially with Sandy, he’s just so docile, everybody just loves him. He’s the perfect dog for this population, I think,” Amy said.
Between 15 and 20 residents will gather every Monday morning in the community center for Sandy’s visit. Sandy’s owner, Steve Lesser, brings him. Or rather, Sandy eagerly leads Steve into the building, down the familiar hallway and into his circle of friends for playtime, ear scratches and handshakes.
Steve started bringing Sandy last fall as part of a local program called Pets on Wheels. The organization provides visits from volunteers and pets mostly to those in nursing home and assisted-living settings in nine Maryland counties.
Pets on Wheels screens and tests any friendly pet not just dogs, said executive director Vicki Rummel.
“Our thing is to help with loneliness,” Vicki said. “So many people are dropped off in a nursing home and visited on Christmas and that’s it.”
The therapy part of Pets on Wheels means the animal is providing comfort and affection, so temperament is key for any animal that will be making visits, she said. All animals must be able to tolerate loud noises and getting pinched, and must never bite.
“We have the same requirements for everybody a Chihuahua or a Golden Retriever or a tortoise,” Vicki said.
With the organization being a non-profit, it relies entirely on donations to keep it running. Its upcoming major fundraiser is its Dog-A-Thon in July at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.
Steve took Sandy through the screening process with Pets on Wheels last summer with the encouragement of his wife, Eileen, after he retired from the wine and liquor industry after 40 years.
After he went through the orientation, he looked through a list of places that were requesting therapy dogs. He narrowed down his choices to the few that were near his home in Pikesville.
He chose Arden Courts and North Oaks, a senior living community nearby. Bringing Sandy to see the residents there is a little different because they’re more interactive and can play with him more, he said. One woman is even knitting him a sweater.
But going to the Alzheimer’s unit at Arden Courts was different.
“When I first went in, I told my wife, ‘I don’t know if I can do this one,’” Steve said. “But I got to know them. The therapy for the patients with the dog is really working and I enjoy it. When Sandy comes in, it’s instant stimulation.”
Steve has gotten to know the residents well. As he brings Sandy around the circle to say good morning, he talks about the Ravens with one and the Orioles with another.
Sandy takes it upon himself to bring his tennis ball to whoever he thinks will throw it next for him. He waits patiently, sometimes giving someone a gentle nudge to wake him to play. He doesn’t lunge or grab.
One of the residents who has responded the most to Sandy is Shirley, who smiles the entire time watching him play.
Amy, the program coordinator, recalled how Shirley was terrified of dogs early on and would hide behind her walker, not wanting to pet Sandy, much less play with him.
But on this Monday morning, she moved her walker out of the way for him, was petting him, and got up to watch him chase the ball.
“I’m not afraid of him anymore,” Shirley said. “Now, I don’t know if I’d want to be alone with him, though.”
Steve and his wife, Eileen, have recently started bringing their other Golden Retriever, 3-year-old Kelly, along for visits to Arden Courts. She passed all of the necessary tests for Pets on Wheels.
Kelly will be an occasional visitor, while Sandy will continue going weekly to see the residents, Steve said.
“When Sandy is there, they seem to perk up, they want to play with him, they want to pet him, they throw the ball. They get a little enthusiastic and a little more alert,” he said. “They don’t remember my name from one week to another, but they remember Sandy the Golden Retriever.”
KARYN SPELLMAN ASH is a freelance writer based in Reisterstown, Md., and a longtime owner of Chocolate labs.