Therapy dog lends paw to those in need

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?”

Click next below to read more about Lewis the therapy dog.


A family affair

At home, Lewis is a typical dog who loves napping, playing fetch, long walks in the woods and climbing in his dad's lap in the evening, Werneke says.

Jacob has always been a big help with Lewis and now Poppy, a second Chesapeake Bay retriever the family adopted a year ago. The younger Werneke is planning to follow in his mother's footsteps and hopes to get certified soon to do pet therapy. Eventually, he hopes to work with Poppy, but will first get certified with the more experienced Lewis, Werneke says. Each dog and handler must be certified together to do therapy.

“It just seems a really fun thing to do,” says Jacob, a sophomore at Severna Park High School. “My mom says she enjoys it a lot, and it’s really rewarding for her. I think it makes other people’s lives better. It has a good impact.”

All earsTherapy Dog classroom2 W

This year, Wernecke hopes to add Severna Park Elementary to Lewis’s regular stops. She and Lewis recently visited a first-grade class at the school for a get-acquainted session, arranged by Wernecke’s sister-in-law, whose son is in the class, and teacher Stacy Langhirt.

In the classroom, the wide-eyed youngsters oohed and aahed over Lewis, who handled the attention with his usual gentle serenity, and they peppered Wernecke with questions about him: “Why is his name Lewis?” “How old is he?” “Does Lewis like dirt?”

They then took turns eagerly scratching Lewis’s ears and back while Wernecke explained how helpful and fun reading to Lewis can be and offered tips on how to approach a strange dog. (For example: Always ask the dog’s owner first.)

Langhirt says she hopes to have Lewis back for regular reading therapy visits as soon as possible.

“The students thought that Lewis was awesome and are excited to be able to read to him,” she says, adding that she hopes reading with Lewis will give students confidence in their reading ability. “I hope that this also helps to develop a love of reading in the students and motivates them to practice more on their own for when it’s their turn to read to Lewis.”

Wernecke has been lobbying to use Lewis in the county schools for years, in part because it would be a welcome relief from the hours it takes to drive back and forth from her sessions at Kennedy Krieger and Hopkins. But she is also a firm believer in the magic that dogs like Lewis can work on even healthy children.

“Lewis doesn’t judge,” she says. “A lot of times, if you read in front of your classmates, they might make fun of you. Not Lewis. Lewis is calming, relaxing. And he’s fun.”

If therapy dogs can be a blessing for children, they’re a blessing for Wernecke and her family as well.

“I think I’ll always do this,” Wernecke says, when asked about her future plans as a dog owner and lover. “I think I’ll always hope my dogs will be the type who can do this.”

People interested in training their dog for pet therapy can contact one of the following organizations: National Capital Therapy Dogs at nctdinc.org, Pet Partners at petpartners.org or Intermountain Therapy Animals at therapyanimals.org.

By Pete Pichaske