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Therapy dogs spread cheer through virtual volunteering

Face-to-face visits aren’t possible during social distancing, so handlers are finding creative ways to stay connected.
Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way therapy dogs can help people.
Social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way therapy dogs can help people.B.J. Baker
/ Source: TODAY

An English mastiff named Duke doesn’t understand social distancing. The 3-year-old dog is used to volunteering nearly every day at schools and assisted living facilities as a therapy dog with his handler, Tiger Maynard-White.

An English Mastiff and his handler
Duke and Tiger Maynard-White visit residents at Harbor Village Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New London, Connecticut.Courtesy of Tiger Maynard-White

“He loves people,” Maynard-White, 56, told TODAY. “He is the biggest baby.”

The New London, Connecticut-based team has volunteered for the past two years with the nonprofit Pet Partners, spreading comfort and cheer in their community. Maynard-White said they both miss offering face-to-face visits; she’s particularly worried about senior citizens in nursing homes who are unable to visit with their families during the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s why I came up with the idea of window-to-window visits,” she said.

Duke visits residents at Harbor Village Rehabilitation and Nursing Center — from outside. Though residents can’t run their fingers through his fur, they still light up in delight while peering out the windows at the happy dog. Maynard-White waves a sign that reads, “Duke sends his love.”

Hands mirror one another on either side of a window
Tiger Maynard-White "touches" a woman's hand on the other side of the window at a skilled nursing facility.Courtesy of Tiger Maynard-White

On one visit, a typically withdrawn woman urged a member of the staff to help her rise from her wheelchair to get a closer look. Others pressed their hands to the window in gratitude.

“Each of our hands are touching both sides of the windows,” she said. “I was in tears.”

Volunteer therapy dog teams across the country are finding creative ways to spread comfort in these unprecedented times when stress, isolation and anxiety are on the rise.

Elisabeth Van Every, communications and outreach coordinator at Pet Partners, which currently has around 13,000 registered therapy animal teams across America and abroad, said she is not surprised.

“Most of our volunteers really love what they do,” she told TODAY. “They find it very rewarding to be able to share their pets with people who can benefit, and to see the difference they’re making in people’s lives.”

A man smiles from a window at his daughter and her dog.
Debra Bianchini enjoys a window visit with her dad, who resides at a skilled nursing facility in Cheshire, Connecticut, with her therapy dog Brutus by her side. This was the first time they saw each other after the facility went on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.Courtesy of Pet Partners

Some teams are holding video chats with students or hospital patients; others are sharing daily photos on social media. Since therapy animals can’t currently promote children’s literacy with visits at classrooms and libraries, Pet Partners plans to launch a “Read With Me” initiative soon.

“We are going to be asking kids to read to their pets at home and share photos or videos of that with us so that we can make sure they’re still maintaining that connection and those opportunities to read,” she said. “We’re glad we have an opportunity to do that thanks to the available technology.”

Jill Baker, 59, works at the University of South Florida Health Libraries. Her golden retriever, Snitch, a Pet Partners therapy dog, is the Library Ambassador and has been a hit with students since she started volunteering in 2014.

Now that medical students are working remotely and potentially feeling additional anxiety about their chosen field, Snitch is helping remind them of ways to access the journals and data they need in social media posts and on the library website. She’s also appearing in cute photos to offer stress relief.

A golden retriever "works" at a computer
Snitch, named for the Golden Snitch in the "Harry Potter" novels, still "communicates" with medical students remotely.USF Health

“I’m a reluctant social media poster, but this has kicked us into gear,” Baker told TODAY. “We’re going to post a picture on her page every day.”

Cincinnati resident Nan Williams, 57, has been texting photos of her therapy dog, Gus, to a physical therapist to share with patients at a rehabilitation facility they visited before Ohio’s “stay at home” order. She’s also pulling together photos for the staff break room.

“People that are so stressed right now; they could use a little Gus love,” she told TODAY.

A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Gus, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named for the mouse in Disney's "Cinderella" animated film, passed his therapy dog test when just 1 year old.Courtesy of Nan Williams

Volunteers at other therapy animal nonprofits are also trying to find ways to “visit” remotely. Judy Bailey, 59, visited hospitals and nursing homes in and around DeRidder, Louisiana, over 400 times with her mixed-breed dog, Blue, through the nonprofit Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Now she texts photos to activities leaders at several facilities for them to share.

A mixed breed dog named Blue
A man in a truck dumped Blue in a field near Judy Bailey's home. Now he's a beloved therapy dog certified with Alliance of Therapy Dogs. "It's such a ministry to help people just smile and feel better and forget about their problems," Bailey said of volunteering with Blue.Courtesy of Judy Bailey

“I’ve put little messages that, ‘Blue really loves you,’ and ‘Blue is waving hello,’” she told TODAY. “I’ll let them know, ‘We’re doing great. We really miss you. We hope we get to see you soon.’”

Deborah Snyder, 55, co-founder of the Miami-based Heel 2 Heal Therapy Dogs, said the “current challenging environment” motivated the group to pivot to sharing online messages from pets about staying safe and healthy during the new reality facing Americans.

Posts include support for flattening the curve, appreciation for medical teams, first responders, sanitation workers and employees at grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants, and positive messages like, “We will get through this together.”

Therapy dog montage about flattening the curve
Therapy dogs from Miami-based Heel 2 Heal Therapy Dogs share social media messages about safety precautions during the coronavirus pandemic, like, "Our moms & dads practice #socialdistancing when they walk us."Courtesy of Deborah Snyder / Heel 2 Heal Therapy Dogs

“We truly want to be part of the solution by spreading information bundled in puppy smiles and tail wags,” she told TODAY in an email.

As one recent post read, “Be kind, stay home and be safe!”