‘Good Dogs’ Lift Spirits on the UWS

Moon Unit and owner Tara Grace meet with a resident of the Atria 86.

By Lisa Kava

At Atria 86, an independent and assisted living apartment building for seniors on West 86th Street, residents spend time with special visitors on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday evening of every month.

Therapy dogs along with their owners are regularly scheduled guests on these evenings, bringing energy and excitement into the community room in Atria 86’s lobby. The therapy teams are volunteers with The Good Dog Foundation, whose mission is to help promote healing by using teams of therapy dogs and their human handlers. The organization provides training classes and therapy team certification to people and their dogs.

Tucker, the Bernese Mountain Dog.

Mary, a senior who lives at Atria 86, told West Side Rag that she looks forward to the Wednesday evening visits with the therapy dog teams. “They don’t know we’re old,” she said about the dogs “and they don’t get impatient with us when we are slow with words or when we forget words. If we forget a word they wag their tails. They are not judgmental.” Mary explained that the activity was a nice way to connect with others who live in the building. “I have met so many neighbors through the Good Dog visits that I might have never gotten to know. Dogs break the ice. Dogs make people happy,” she said.

West Side Rag was invited to visit the November 14th event to see the therapy teams in action. That evening, 4 teams were visiting: Elisabeth Frank with Sophie, a Bijon rescue; Amanda and Jeremy Gurtis with Tucker, a Bernese Mountain Dog; Megan Coryat with Moon Unit, a Chihuahua rat terrier mix; and Tara and Colby Grace with Levi, a Greyhound (who is a retired racing dog.)

Levi with Mary.

At 7 p.m. the residents slowly began trickling into the community room, sat down and waited. Before long, Sophie came bounding into the room wearing her Good Dog working vest, with her owner Elisabeth at her side. Sophie jumped right onto the sofa, directly into the lap of one of the residents and the two greeted each other with a kiss as if they were old friends.  Next Tucker arrived alongside his owners. With purpose, the gentle 70-pound dog circled around the room, stopping to say hello to each resident.

Moon Unit, Levi and their owners arrived next, falling right into the mix — like one big happy family reunion. The faces of the residents immediately lit up and turned into smiles as they began to pet the dogs. Residents began chatting with one another and to the dogs’ owners. The room, which was quiet just a few moments earlier, suddenly came alive with a buzz. There was casual conversation and laughter everywhere. Residents spoke to one another and to the dogs’ owners not only about the dogs but also about other topics. One woman spoke about her interest in music as she stroked Tucker’s back. There were many questions asked about Levi (Does he pull? How fast is he?)

Elizabeth with Sophie.

Elizabeth, a new resident,  was attending the event for the first time. A neighbor had mentioned that there would be dogs visiting, but Elizabeth had not known what to expect. “I like the dogs and I like the chitchat,” she said. “Mary seems like a nice person to get to know.” Another newcomer to the group sat quietly on the side of the room. Jeremy Gurtis, one of Tucker’s owners, noticing the man was not interacting with the others, took a seat next to him and began to talk. At first the newcomer was reserved but after a few minutes he was talking to Jeremy about his days as a general surgeon years ago.

Another resident pets Sophie.

“My husband and I love this work,” Amanda Gurtis said. “It is great to chat with the residents and to talk about life in general. They are older and wiser, they have great stories.” Amanda and Jeremy’s interest in dog therapy stemmed from their experience during college. Both were students at Virginia Tech during the shooting in 2007. Jeremy was a volunteer paramedic at the time. During the traumatic aftermath of the shooting, the visiting therapy dogs at the fire station had a therapeutic  impact on him personally. Amanda recalled benefiting from her time spent with the therapy dogs brought to campus in the days and weeks following the shooting as well.  As a result of their experience, the Gurtis’ felt strongly that they wanted to become part of a therapy team. “It is great to be in a different environment that is not work and not home. It is great therapy for us as well as the residents,” Amanda said.

Elisabeth Frank, Sophie’s owner, is a cancer survivor. “I feel blessed and lucky, grateful to have survived, and I wanted to give back,” she said. Elisabeth, who grew up with dogs, recalled times that she would go to the dog run while recuperating from surgery to sit and watch the dogs play. She volunteered at rescue organization Animal Haven and ultimately adopted Sophie from the organization. Elisabeth and Sophie have been volunteering at Atria 86 with the Good Dog Foundation for the past 8 years. “When Sophie is wearing her Good Dog Foundation vest she knows she is going to work,” Elisabeth said. “She gets great joy out of this and I get great joy. The residents say it is the best part of their day. It is not just about the dogs, it is about communicating with the residents. We bring the outside word in to them and they have become like extended family,” Elisabeth said.

Tucker, via The Good Dog Foundation.

Visits to Atria 86 “allow the residents to experience an elevation in mood, a reduction in stress, and generally encourage a sense of well-being,” said Jackie Menkes, the Director of Marketing at The Good Dog Foundation. She said that the organization currently has 40 active volunteer therapy dog teams living on the Upper West Side and seven partner facilities (one of which is Atria 86). Partner facilities on the Upper West Side include senior centers, health care centers, rehabilitation centers and schools for special needs students, according to Menkes. The organization is always looking for more volunteers. If you think you and your dog might make a great therapy team and are interested in volunteering you can get started here: http://thegooddogfoundation.org/volunteer/potential-teams/

NEWS | 8 comments | permalink
    1. Sally F says:

      Love this!!

    2. Mariz says:

      Perhaps the building should allow dogs and provide dog walkers as a service. I bet living with a dog would exponentially increase the benefits noted.

      • Shona Keir says:

        They allow dogs. My parents live there. And there are several great local dog walkers who take care of some of the dogs in the building.

        It’s a great place! My parents love it!

    3. Kathleen says:

      How nice it would be if such facilities owned dogs or made therapy dogs available more than a couple of hours twice a month. Such a wonderful therapeutic time for the residents.

    4. Sarah says:

      Kudos to these good dogs and their people.

    5. Mildred Alpern says:

      Lovely story

    6. Dana Desjardins says:

      Kudos to the dog owners and the dogs!

    7. Dog owner says: