By Margie Smith Holt
Walk up Central Park West and you’ll see plenty of dogs enjoying the last days of summer. But at least one dog frequenting the neighborhood is headed to work. And she’s looking for a few other dogs to join her.
Meet Chicken, a therapy dog who’s back on the job after a two-year COVID layoff. She’s making house calls again, visiting Upper West Siders who are terminally ill, bringing comfort and a little bit of joy.
“She opens hearts,” says Chicken’s partner, Ellen Landress-Bowkett. The two are volunteers with the Hospice Care Team at VNS Health (formerly known as Visiting Nurse Service of NY). Ellen credits Chicken—a rescue from a kill shelter—with getting her involved.
“She had a purpose,” says Ellen. “I’d never had a dog before, but walking down the street, she would stare at somebody—just stop and stare—and then that person would start staring at her, then they would come toward each other like long-lost friends, and the person would always be so happy…So, after a little while with her, I realized that she needed to do something beyond just be my pet.”
After an interview to make sure the 9-pound mixed breed had the right temperament for a therapy job, Chicken (and Ellen) trained for their new vocation at the Good Dog Foundation and, after zeroing in on VNS Health’s programs, got the additional training to do hospice and vigil work. Chicken was a natural.
“She makes intense eye contact. She gazes with such love,” says Ellen. “Sometimes people just burst out into tears.
“If you want to be unconditionally accepted, pet a dog.”
Chicken’s story, says VNS Health, underscores not only the benefits of animal therapy in hospice care, but also the need for more volunteers like Chicken and Ellen. Chicken is currently the only therapy dog on the hospice care team. Ellen hopes Upper West Side dog owners reading this will help change that. The work, she says, is so rewarding.
“I really hope that many, many people—and dogs—are interested in doing this because it’s so fulfilling. It’s so heart opening. It’s so magical,” Ellen says. “I’ve sat with people who I’ve just met, who are stroking a dog—just kind of in the zone—and they start pouring their hearts out. And it’s such a privilege to be there and to receive that kind of trust and openness from someone. It’s such a privilege to really connect with people that way.”
You can find more information on VNS Health’s hospice services here.
For the record, Chicken’s no chicken. When the West Side Rag met her, she was super chill and perfectly happy to meet a stranger. So, what’s with the name?
Before Ellen adopted her, she tried to imagine what it would be like having a little dog running around in her backyard. When she pictured the dog trying to slip through the gate, she thought it looked like a chicken. And then…
“I met her and she looked exactly like the little dog that just appeared in my imagination. And the funny thing is, she answered to it immediately.”
To keep up with Chicken’s adventures, you can, of course, follow her on Instagram @chickenthetherapydog.