Who are  Bright and Beautiful

My Visits with Casey

I first heard about the Bright and Beautiful Dogs pet therapy program through my Hebrew School teacher. I was almost thirteen years old, and looking for a meaningful “mitzvah” project to fulfill my Bar Mitzvah requirements. Since my Beagle Casey had always been special to me, the idea of participating with him in a program that would also help others (the very definition of a mitzvah) was appealing. I also knew that Casey would be ideal for pet therapy. His gentle, loving nature, with his soulful eyes, would melt anyone's heart.

Little did I know that the process of getting Casey certified as a therapy dog was more difficult than I had anticipated. After Casey failed the initial skills test, we were referred to a special training course, which we attended for several months. We were required to demonstrate, among other things, that Casey would not be anxious around wheelchairs and crutches, or be too distracted by other dogs. Completing this rigorous course, we finally received our certifications-- Casey as a therapy dog, and me as a pet handler. Beagles are notoriously incorrigible, and since Casey is all Beagle, I am still amazed that he could be trained at all, let alone so well. I was told that I was the youngest pet handler ever to pass the test in our area.

Our first assignment was at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in East Orange , New Jersey . Following the lead of more experienced pet handlers, our goal as we walked from room to room was to bring a little comfort, and try to elicit a bit of conversation, or maybe a smile, from each patient. I was very nervous about our first real visit. Although I had watched and helped Casey become trained, I still could not believe that the Casey I knew at home would ever display the type of behavior needed on therapy visits. He more than proved me wrong. When we walked into the first patient's room it was as though Casey had been doing this for years. He was perfectly behaved and quickly infected most patients with a big smile. What was at first a surprising transformation has become almost second nature for Casey.

After nearly a year at Kessler, I decided to look elsewhere to start my own team at a local nursing home that had never been involved in this program. With the assistance of hospice, I found the Waterview Nursing Home in Cedar Grove , New Jersey . For the past several years, I have been leading a team of therapy dogs and their handlers on monthly visits to this home. Whenever Casey and I enter Waterview, the reaction of the residents never changes—excited smiles and welcoming pats. I particularly look forward to visiting Ginny, a long term resident who loves dogs, and has a particular fondness for Casey. As we approach, her face lights up and she can't wait to smother Casey with kisses. Each time I visit the home, I am struck by the comfort and joy our visits bring to most of the residents.

I have also taken my dog to camps for children with life- threatening diseases. I love to watch the way that Casey interacts with these kids. It's almost as though he understands the seriousness of their situation, as he brings a smile to their faces and becomes a magnet for their stroking hands.

My visits with Casey have enabled me to give a little to others, simply by sharing with them something I love (Casey). These visits have also helped me mature and become more outgoing. When I first started out, I was a little shy and anxious about having to introduce myself to so many people. Now, I am more at ease in social situations. An unexpected benefit from pet therapy has been my growth as a public speaker. As one of the youngest pet handlers, I have been a featured speaker at mitzvah fairs, giving information on certification, and encouraging other kids to pursue this volunteer work. Year after year, more and more students have followed my example. I hope they have found pet therapy as meaningful as I have.


Rosa (not her real name) was a 75 year old resident of the nursing home. Active for her age, she had been placed there due to a mild dementia. She could feed and dress herself with guidance, and was one of the more mobile and dramatic residents there. But Rosa spoke a Latin dialect different than that of most of the other patients, and so could often not be understood. It took great effort to understand her-- an effort that was not always made by the staff. 

                Rosa loved dogs, and when we came to visit she would be one of the first to greet us. With obvious joy and enthusiasm that bridged all language barriers, she followed the therapy dog group as we moved along the halls. She would stoke and hug and kiss in turn each of the dogs. She would grasp my arm firmly, looking directly into my eyes, chattering-clearly- about the dogs. How beautiful, she was saying. How beautiful they all are.

                I was impressed with her level of activity. She seemed always to be in motion. I decided to try something. I gave her my dog's comb, and showed her that if she wanted she could groom him a bit. With glee she took the comb and expertly began to run it through his coat. She carefully combed his head, his ears, his neck. She made long strokes through his back and sides. She combed the feathers on his legs and tail. She was clearly delighted, and so were we. Then she turned and spotted one of the other dogs. Off she went with the comb, giving equally loving and thorough attention to each of the dogs in the group, finishing each one with a kiss on the head.

                It was with sorrow that I finally reclaimed my comb, thanked her, and bade her farewell. I will never forget the joy that shone during this interlude, for it was so much like the joy I feel myself when I groom my dog. She and I were truly speaking the same language that day.


                Looking something like a Ziegfield girl in an elaborate headpiece, the large black dog pranced around the corner and stopped in the hallway. He was 85 pounds of slender muscle, with a gaily waving tail. He wore a feathery black and silver headband that said HAPPY NEW YEAR on his head. His shiny black coat and proud carriage completed the picture. All eyes were riveted on him.

The patients were lined up in the hallway, waiting to touch this marvelous creature, as well as the other dogs in the Therapy Dog group at Kessler Institute. As the black dog was introduced to those who wanted to meet him, they reached to touch his headpiece. Is it stapled into his head? they inquired. They reached with hands that were injured, paralyzed, or weakened by disease. They asked questions with voices and tongues hoarse from days and weeks on respirators. They leaned over to touch him, using the trunk muscles and balance reactions they will eventually need to return to their former lives. And they smiled and laughed, experiencing the joy of meeting new friends and forgetting their pain and sorrow for a time. 


The eyes of a child are frightened while spending his first night alone away from home in a big scary hospital.  He looks at the small brown terrier that just shuffled in to his room in disbelief -- the dog. s big grins and wagging tail are irresistible -- a dog!  In a Hospital?  WOW -- and for a little while his fears are eased and maybe this is not such a bad place after all.  


The woman in the hospital ward has breast cancer.  She has in terrible pain -- she can just about stand it, no matter what medication they have given her.   A tall, dark, shiny and very handsome stranger walks into her room.  He stands by the bed and just looks at her with the sweetest pair of eyes she has ever seen.  She smiles and  slowly reaches out and strokes his beautiful coat.  His fur feels wonderful under her hand and for the first time today she starts to relax.  


The Adult Day Care Center is crowded today. Its just before the holidays (ugh)!  Our families have dumped us here so they can be free to go shopping.  Most of the people are depressed -- it's a difficult time of year and Edmund especially, is just sitting in a heap.  He has not spoken to anyone in months.  He comes and just sits quietly and goes home again. 

In come the dogs!  I always enjoy them so -- they are so happy and cheerful and they remind me of Emma, my childhood dog.  It makes me smile to think of her.  Suddenly,  Edmund rises and approaches the dogs.  He silently removes the leash from the handler. s hand and leads the dog towards the others in our group.  He stops before each person and asks:  Would you like to visit with the dog?   We are all moved and dumbfounded -- he spoke!  He is smiling! 


The young girl lies in her bed in the rehabilitation institute.  Her family is anxiously standing around her as they have every night for the past months.  They feel discouraged and very upset -- she has responded to nothing -- it seems as if she will never regain consciousness again.  The handler and dog stand in the entrance to the room and ask:  May we come in and visit?.  The family responds in unison:  Sure, why not? Nothing else has worked..

The handler approaches the bed and picks up her scruffy little dog.  She holds the dog up as if the girl can see him and says:  Hello!  This is Hardie! Would you like to visit with him?  The little girl slowly moves!  She reaches out as best she can and speaks one word: Beautiful


Sophie was in her late eighties when my chocolate Lab, Bailey, first met her.  She was confined to a wheelchair and completely blind but that didn't stop her from talking about the old days.  Sophie wore the same pink floral, flannel house coat and knee hi sky blue socks each time we visited.  Each time we entered the large TV room, Bailey would go to Sophie first.  He would nudge her on the knee and she would say "Who's There?" in a loud voice and I would reply "It's Bailey come for a visit."  I think he knew she couldn't see.  Bailey would lick her hand so she knew where his head was to pet him.  He would just lay his big brown head in her lap.  Sophie would always apologize for not being able to see him and always said he feels beautiful.  At those moments, he could have been purple with pink dots.  It didn't matter; he was doing the job God created him for.

We visited Sophie and her fellow residents on the last Monday of  each month.  I would get home from work on those days and tell Bailey that we were visiting Sophie and he would go crazy with excitement. At the facility, we would go room to room and visit but the TV room was where he wanted to be.  Sophie would always say things into Bailey's ear, probably secrets she wanted no one else to hear.  I will never forget the day I over heard her telling Bailey that she saw The Blessed Virgin and told him that everything was going to be all right.

Our pet therapy group doesn't visit facilities over the summer because of the heat.  When September came, Bailey was eager to begin his vocation again.  We saw Sophie; she had just come out of the hospital.  She didn't say much; she looked tired and weak.  Bailey and I dressed up as clowns for our October visit, matching costumes. We looked like a Ringling Bros. act.  Bailey couldn't wait to see Sophie.  He practically dragged me into the TV room.  He sat in the  spot where Sophie's wheelchair usually was.  Once again, she was hospitalized.

We missed our November visit.  Christmas time!  Bailey wore felt reindeer antlers and a red ribbon around his neck.  He couldn't wait to get started.  He went from room to room.  He learned to put his paws up onto the side rails of the beds so people could pet him easier; on command, he can even lay at a patient's side.

He pranced into the TV room and immediately went to Sophie.  Once again, the spot was empty.  I asked the events coordinator how she was doing and I was told that Sophie had passed away at Thanksgiving.  I was deeply saddened and Bailey was too.  I could see in his eyes that he missed her.  I whispered into his ear that Sophie was gone and that it would be all right.  He gave me a kiss on the  cheek and went to the next patient.

This is a true story.


                I brought my dog, Nikki, into the "locked unit" of Kessler Institute, where patients are admitted for traumatic brain injuries and may present a danger to themselves or others.  There was a 16-year old girl, who was a patient following a terrible car accident, where she suffered a serious brain injury.  The girl's mother and brother were visiting, and were thrilled to see the dogs, since they had several animals at home, including a pet snake.  One could tell that this family was made up of  true animal lovers.  I brought Nikki into the room and the girl was in her bed.  She was thrashing a bit, not responding to any verbal commands, and her eyes could not focus.  I lifted Nikki onto the bed and placed the girl's arm on Nikki.  For a minute or so, the thrashing lessened, while she felt Nikki's hair.  Nikki stayed there quietly. The girl was non-verbal, but made some moaning noises.

                The next month when we visited, this girl was no longer in the locked unit, and was in a regular room on the same floor.  She was sitting in a wheelchair outside her room, and when the elevator doors opened, and we came out with the dogs, her face lit up, and she shouted, "NIKKI, COME HERE!"  I don't know whether anyone had prepared this girl for our visit, but it was an amazing feat for her to remember the dog's name.  You see, her memory was affected by the accident and her family was so happy she could remember anything.  Evidently, she had started to speak two weeks prior to this visit, but was having trouble remembering.  Her mother had tears in her eyes and so did I.  The girl told me how many animals she had at home and all of their names.  The pets certainly were a spark of enthusiasm for this girl, who wasn't expected to remember anything.

                The next month, this girl was an outpatient at another Kessler facility where I work.  She was having trouble walking and was participating in a study in the gait lab to help her walk better.  I smiled at her as I passed her in the hallway, and she said, "How's Nikki?"  I was shocked that she was able to associate me with Nikki AND remember her name.  We talked for a few minutes and it was clear to me that Nikki had definitely made a difference in this patient's recovery.  I was so proud of Nikki and now know she has the ability to help people heal.


                 I brought Lucy, the apricot toy poodle to a pet therapy visit at Kessler Institute.  We went to visit a woman who had been in a coma for 3 weeks.  We placed Lucy on the bed and placed the woman's hand on Lucy.  The family asked us questions about Lucy and then, the woman's fingers began to move.  It was the first movement they had seen from this woman since she was in a coma.  The woman's fingers kept moving for the next few minutes and the family was so intrigued.  We left the room and continued our visits to other rooms.

                The next month, we came back and asked for the woman we had seen the month before.  "Oh", the nurse replied, "she was discharged and is doing fine".  Again, I feel like Lucy may have been the spark to help this woman on the road to recover from her coma.  I know it would be an amazing coincidence, but one that I would like to believe is true.

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The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc. is a non-profit all volunteer organization.
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The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc.
80 Powder Mill Road, Morris Plains, NJ 07950
Phone: (973)292-3316  Fax: (973)292-9559
Toll-Free (888)PET-5770

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