FOX's Liz McDonald Calls Her Therapy Dogs 'Little Miracles'
Tell us about your pups' personalities.
I love these dogs! They're from the same litter, though Sharon Rose is apricot white and Louie Vincenze is a blue-black. Sharon is unusual – she likes to sit on your lap and put her arms around your neck and her head in the crook of your chin. She's perfect as a therapy dog. My friends ask if Sharon charges $100 an hour for her services! When I put them in the dog hotel when I go away, I get a report that all the other dogs will go out to play, but Sharon and Louie sit on the porch like an old married Italian couple.
Why did you decide to train Sharon and Louie as therapy dogs?
It all came about after I got the dogs. I was still volunteering on my own, but I knew these dogs were right for doing some kind of volunteer work – I just didn't know what. ... Elderly people, children and disabled people would come up to me on the street, just to pet the dogs. So we went through training and testing to see how they'd react to large objects like wheelchairs, elevators and crowded areas. Now, we go to hospitals and nursing homes together. We've also worked with groups of teens with cerebral palsy.
These dogs are friendly, and they're patient, confident and gentle. They enjoy human contact. The main reason I wanted to do this, though, is because I enjoy them so much. They've been little miracles for me. I do think God lets these little miracles out of heaven to stand out with you. A dog can change your life. What other creature meets you at the front door, cheering for you to come home?
What happens when you go to visit people with Sharon and Louie?
Sharon and Louie are really good at visiting with the elderly and disabled. Most of our visits are all about the residents – they talk about the experiences they had with dogs in their lifetime. As we come back month after month, their faces light up, and they say Sharon and Louie are a part of their family. Some of the elderly don't have anyone visiting them, and I don't like to see people lonely.
I do have a funny routine. I walk into the nursing home and say, "Sharon's Irish, Luigi is Italian and they're in couples counseling trying to work it out." So I walk around, and one guy will pipe up, "I was married to an Irish girl and she wouldn't stop talking." Then women say, "My Italian husband wouldn't shut up." It gives me a lot of memories that I'll always keep close to my heart.
The families of the people we visit are really wonderful. They come up and grab your hand, and say their family member wouldn't stop talking about the dogs. It's truly a blessing.
One time, I brought the dogs to visit with a group of physically disabled children. I asked one kid, who is about 14 or 15, if he wanted to visit with Louie, but before I even finished speaking, Louie jumped up on the arm of the boy's wheelchair and turned it on – and he went rocketing across the room laughing hysterically! He was fine, but we couldn't believe it.
How does training to become a therapy dog work?
We started this around 2000-2001. There are several people who observe and test your dogs, and meet you to get a sense of your character and purpose. It takes three or four different sessions. The dogs have to be able to walk behind you on their leash, to the left. I can't use retractable leashes because those are too long. Sharon and Louie have to be told to sit, can't be excitable and have to be used to loud noises. Basically the tester will watch to just see how they respond. In a hospital, there are those kiosks on wheels, blood pressure carts and cots, and they can't be scared of those. You can't have a mean, snappy or barky dog. We also can't go into burn units or ICUs, for obvious reasons.
When you're in a home or hospital, you have to give up your pet ownership, and people miss it. A dog is a dog, they won't pay attention to age or disability – they accept you for who you are.
Can you tell us about your first pet?
Sharon and Louie are my first pets. I grew up in a family of eight children! We had a parakeet named Bird, but that was about it. I wanted to have a dog my entire life. I wanted to just get Louie, and realized he would be lonely, so I got him a wife in Sharon. It's helped, because Sharon's been very sick. She has hypothyroidism and hyperparathyroidism. She was misdiagnosed with epilepsy, but it turned out she had a calcium deficiency – she was given wrong medications when she just needed calcium. I'm careful with her, and Louie takes good care of her. People have an affinity for her because she's been through surgeries, and they can relate.
What are your dogs' favorite products and treats?
They both love broccoli! I see little green things all over the house and always wonder what they are, then I realize they're from their broccoli. They like mini-carrots, rawhide and yogurt. They eat healthily, but Sharon is missing a few teeth!
If Sharon and Louie could talk, what would they say?
FOOD! MORE FOOD! One time Louie jumped up on a woman's bed and ate a grilled cheese right off her plate. I think they see the therapy thing as a new way to get food. They get handouts, but I try not to let them. They just happen to like the free food.