Therapy dog lends paw to those in need

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Lewis is the Wernecke family's sweet 80-pound Cheaepeake Bay retriever but he also has a special job — he's a therapy dog, trained to provide comfort and support to people in schools, hospitals and nursing homes in the Baltimore-Annapolis area.

Therapy dog LewisAmy WA few months ago, Amy Wernecke and Lewis visited the Arundel Lodge, an Annapolis treatment center for people with behavioral health disorders. Their last stop was an older black man, probably in his 60s, who could neither see nor hear.

The man reached for Lewis. He stroked his fur, felt his heartbeat and his face lit up with joy. “What color is he?” the man signed. When someone signed “brown” into his hand, the delighted man signed back, “He’s like me.”

“Everyone was in tears,” says Wernecke, of Severna Park. “Because when you think of the isolation blindness and deafness must create, Lewis was able to shine a little light in a dark place.”

Over the past few years, the team of Lewis and Wernecke have shone a lot of light in a lot of dark places.

Lewis has been visiting the sick and the needy for the past four years as a therapy dog. (Therapy dogs are not to be confused with service dogs, which are trained to do specific tasks for their disabled owners.) During that time, Wernecke estimates, he’s made about 250 stops. Lewis regularly visits Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, where his playful but calm demeanor has elated, helped and comforted countless children.

“We look for dogs who are comfortable lying on a mat or on a couch or even a wheelchair with a child, but also who like to do things like fetch balls, and Lewis has both of those qualities,” says Sherry Fisher, special programs coordinator at Kennedy Krieger. “He’s a very active dog, but at the same time has this kind, gentle way. He looks at you with those soulful eyes, and it’s just amazing.”

Fisher says Kennedy Krieger, which provides medical care and school-based programs for children with brain, spinal cord and musculoskeletal system disorders, uses the dogs for a variety of therapies, from physical to reading. A child learning to walk again after an operation, for example, often will learn much more readily — and have more fun while doing it — if she’s walking with a dog.

The results can be every bit as dramatic as the elated reaction from the blind man at Arundel Lodge.

“We had a child who wasn’t moving,” Fisher says, “but we noticed that when the therapy dog was standing next to him one evening, he wiggled his fingers. He was trying to pet the dog. It was one of those moments when you say, ‘Wow, we can’t believe what we just saw.’”

Best medicine: Four paws and fur

Werneke became interested in dog therapy when she adopted Lewis five years ago. She had dogs growing up, and after she and her husband, David, were married, but it was Lewis's gentle demeanor that got her thinking about dog therapy.

“I had read articles about therapy dogs and began thinking it was something we could do,” Wernecke says. “Lewis seemed so unflappable. Anywhere we took him — to concerts, to eat outside when we could, to festivals — he was just unfazed by any of it.”

Werneke and Lewis trained and were certified by National Capital Therapy Dogs, a non-profit, all-volunteer organization that provides animal-assisted therapy in the Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia region. Now a member of the leadership team there, Werneke is also active in several national pet therapy organizations such as Intermountain Therapy Animals and Pet Partners.

These days, Wernecke and Lewis average one or two visits a week to hospitals, schools, libraries — wherever dog therapy is needed. It’s all volunteer work for Wernecke, who works part-time for a local builder. And she tries to get it all in while her son, Jacob, 15, is in school.

“It’s something I really like to do,” she says. “It can make you feel like you’ve made a difference in a life. When you see a kid smile and you hear he hadn’t smiled all day until he saw Lewis, or you’re told a kid hasn’t come out of his room all day but he came out for the dog ... it’s addictive, really. I mean, what’s better than four paws and fur?”

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