ST. MARYS — When Anita Barton lost a beloved horse after a summer of nursing the animal, she knew, intellectually as a school guidance counselor, that doing something out of grief is usually not the best choice.
“A lot of my friends said, ‘You do not need a puppy,’” Barton said. “But what did I do, I went and got a puppy.”
Her dog, Oliver, is a labradoodle — a cross between a labrador and a poodle. The only sad thing was separating the dog from its brother. So she encouraged her friend, Mary Ellen Miller, to take the other dog, Oakley.
Miller said she was reluctant.
“Anita got hers, and gave the lady my name,” Miller said. “I said I didn’t want another dog, she said, ‘Come and look at him.’ I came and looked at him. That was my mistake.”
The women realized that their dogs weren’t like dogs they’d had in the past; they had nicer temperaments, they shed less, they seemed already trained and aced their obedience programs.
“They were very mellow, even as puppies,” Miller said. “Very laid back, not jumpy or barky or anything.”
“It’s so funny when we got the dogs, they were just amazing,” she said. “They are probably the smartest, calmest, quietest dogs I’ve met ... There was literally no training. I thought these dogs are meant for pet therapy.”
The dogs had to audition to get into a pet therapy program, which can be demanding.
Only 50 percent of dogs make it into the therapy program, Barton said, and these dogs were still considered young at not even 2-years-old.
“They were naturals,” Barton said.
When the dogs graduated, they moved started visiting nursing homes, hospitals and schools. The dogs had to meet grooming requirements, and had to be bathed after they visited facilities as well.
As members in a network of pet therapy animals, pet requests are passed on to the women that open opportunities to bring the animals different places to work. Oakley responded to a request to visit special needs classes in Troy, and visits hospice patients.
“We walk into the lobby, and with the volunteers and staff, you never get far because someone always wants to pet your dog,” Miller said.
“Kids, old people, everybody. People are so surprised to see him. Some people just say it takes their mind off what they’re there for.”
Miller said she’s had heartwarming experiences going into patient rooms where the patients want to pet the dog.
“They love to tell you about their pets, and how much they miss their pet at home,” Miller said. “Not only do they enjoy yours ... It gets people’s minds off things. You meet a lot of nice people.”
Miller and Barton visit special education classes, where the students feed, pet, brush and throw balls to the dogs.
“For some that’s a real effort,” Miller said. “One is blind and loved how the tongue and fur felt.”
Barton takes Oliver to school on a regular basis. This year, she and a teacher plan to track statistics on how well the pet therapy works.
From the beginning to the end of the year students undergo changes related to the pet therapy.
“Actually there was a young man that had Aspergers,” Barton said.
“He was very introverted. At first when Oliver came to class, he didn’t want anything to do with him. By the end, he would read to him and pet him.”
Barton said Oakley and Oliver have a relationship of brothers, knowing each other, greeting each other in a special way. The dogs roll around together like boys, she said.
“Oliver, I’ll say, lets go see Oakie — and he’ll start running around,” Barton said.
Miller said taking the two dogs together places makes people laugh because the dogs look so much alike.
“It’s been a joy for us to share these two dogs and do these kind of things together,” Miller said.
While the women knew each other from working at the same school years ago, the dogs have strengthened the friendship, making them feel like much closer friends in the three years since the dogs were born.
Barton said she also thinks there’s another message to take away from pet therapy, and that’s that animals can connect with humans in education or the workplace or in health care, and can be beneficial in ways we’re only still learning.
“Animals can help in the education process, the grieving process,” Barton said.
“We can use animals in such a helping manner.”