by Lee Juslin
Editor’s note: I am afraid when we first posted this the photos got mixed up with the story of another dog called Duke–we apologize for that and it has now been corrected.
Jon was a cat person. The only dogs he’d known were the hunting dogs his family kept when he was a kid. Yet, when he hit a rough patch in his life, he decided to get a dog; someone to walk with and have fun.
Jon’s mother was in a nursing home that had no stimulation or entertainment for the residents. There were no events or activities planned, and certainly no therapy dog visits. Jon, with a background in working with mentally and physically handicapped people, had heard about pet therapy and decided that with the right animal it would be something he could pursue, so residents in nursing homes like his mother would at least have something to brighten their days.
After checking several shelters, Jon went to his county animal shelter. He told the staff that he wanted an easy-going, older dog that might work out for pet therapy. Immediately the staff, as one, said “You want Duke!”
Duke, at eight years old and a mixture of several larger breeds, was a laid-back, friendly guy. Jon thought he might be just the right dog, but decided to think about it. Then, walking out to his car, he realized that he didn’t need to…Duke was “the one.”
“When I think how I might not have gotten him. Well, it doesn’t bear thinking of because I can’t imagine life without Duke,” Jon said.
Jon had Duke’s DNA tested just for fun. Turns out he may be a mixture of Springer Spaniel, lab and short-haired pointer. “I don’t know how accurate this really is but at seventy pounds, we call him our gentle giant.”
Duke and Jon took a few months to get acquainted and then Jon signed them up for obedience classes with an eye toward qualifying for pet therapy certification. After successfully completing training, Jon and Duke joined Love on a Leash, a national organization promoting pet-provided therapy.
Now, almost five years later, Jon and Duke devote one whole day to visiting a variety of assisted-living homes and senior facilities. Many of these homes are dedicated to residents with memory issues, but they all greet Duke happily on his weekly visits.
“Duke gets excited when I take out his therapy vest. He knows he’s going to see all his “little old lady” girlfriends.”
One of Duke’s regular “clients” seemed more confused than usual on a recent visit, as she kept calling Jon, “Harry.” A staff member told Jon that she was confusing him with her nephew whose name is Harry. Finally, Jon told her that his name was not Harry. “I’m Jon!”
She looked at him thoughtfully. “Well, for heaven’s sake,” she replied. “You mean I’ve been calling you Harry all these years and your name is really Jon?”
Duke was unfazed, but Jon and the nearby staff member had to turn away and bite their tongues.
Jon says every visit he and Duke make is dedicated to his mother, and though Jon was inexperienced with dogs, Duke has helped him make great strides in pet therapy. Recently, Jon established a Love on a Leash chapter called Gold Country Love on a Leash in his area of northern California. In addition, he has adopted another dog, Abby, that he is hoping will also become a therapy dog. He is moving more slowly with Abby, though, as she has a number of issues that came with her from her previous life, where Jon feels she was neglected and abused. With patience and a lot of work, Abby is growing in self-confidence, and Duke is helping her too. Perhaps soon he will have another partner in pet therapy.
Jon says that anyone thinking about pet therapy should understand there is a lot of training required. “It’s a big commitment not only for the training to get certified but also in doing the visits. It’s a lot more than simply bragging rights to having a therapy dog because once you get established with facilities, you become a part of the residents’ lives and you have to commit to actually visiting on a regular schedule.”
Author’s Note: Shortly after talking with Jon for this story, he notified me that Duke had crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Rest in peace, dear Duke. A life well led.
You can find more animal rescue, therapy dog, and other pet related articles in our pet section.