By Ranny Green
As Newtown, Conn., emerged as a national symbol of grief following the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, a reeling country was left asking why and how to best offer its services.
For the Adam Meyers’ family of nearby Southbury, Conn., it was their 2-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog Juliette that “cut through the darkness of those days . . . to bring, even for just a moment, peace in comfort to those she worked with,” recalls Adam’s wife, Lynn.
Equally important in Juliette’s interaction with the Newtown families were the Meyers’ 13-year-old twins, Danielle and Rachel.
“As a mother, I was concerned about what the girls would hear while working with Juliette and the community, and how they would be impacted,” says Lynn. “Once I saw the effect that Juliette had on the kids in the grief counseling center and in the schools along with the comfort she provided families and first responders, I realized the good far outweighed the bad.”
Danielle affirmed, “Every time we walked into the general area people came up to us to pet Juliette and tell us how happy they were that we were there. It was like my sister and I didn’t exist. They only saw Juliette. Whether it was about the shooting, their family or their own dog, they spoke only to her.
“Juliette loved it. It was like this is her job and she has an inner knowledge about the good she is doing for people.”
The family’s first two attempts to offer help with the newly therapy-dog registered Juju (short for Juliette) were greeted with “sounds like a great idea” and unawareness of therapy-dog benefits by law-enforcement officials, thwarting the family from going in immediately.
The day following the shootings the family and Juju drove across the river to Newtown to offer their help at a grievance center in an elementary school, where they were greeted by another dog owner with a 120-pound Akita named Spartacus.
“He was overwhelmed,” recalls Adam Meyers, “and we sat down to carve out a plan. A short time later a third owner-dog team arrived.”
As the days and weeks went on, the therapy dog teams greeted townspeople at the therapy center, worked with therapists in session with families, along with Red Cross responders, the Save the Children play area and therapists themselves. As the town’s six schools reopened, gradually all the principals came onboard allowing dog teams inside to provide needed emotional support for staff and students.
“If I could bring one positive away from this tragedy it is that the dogs brought some sort of normalcy to this town in the darkest days,” says Adam. “From young to old, a dog has a way to calm the senses. The thousands of people we saw won’t remember my name or any of my family’s names, but I guarantee they will always remember Juju’s name.”
Therapy dogs need to be organized more efficiently, argues Meyers. “There is no playbook for this and we don’t know when the next disaster will be but others need to be prepared.”
While Juju is a heroine in the eyes of many in Newtown, she is a champion in the show ring, too, having competed at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last month In New York City under the guidance of Rachel.
“Westminster wasn’t about winning or losing for our family,” adds Adam. “It was a bonding experience for all of us and an opportunity to spread the therapy-dog healing message to everyone.”
Oscar the Grouch
This 120-pound Greater Swiss Mountain Dog and his New York City owner David Moskowitz were among the featured 2012 Westminster Newsmakers because they traveled the shortest distance to the show – in fact, they walked there.
They were back in the limelight again this year for an entirely different reason – the challenges they faced and the lengths they traveled in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
At 9 p.m. the day of the storm, the power, water and elevators to the Manhattan building in which they live went out when the neighborhood’s transformer blew. While waiting out the storm, Moskowitz and other occupants were told it could be a week before power would be restored.
“I realized that once we went down 44 flights of stairs, we would not be able to get back up,” he says. “The next morning Oscar cried to go to the bathroom, however I had to secure a hotel room first. One didn’t have a phone and two others would not accept dogs.”
Finally, he located a hotel on the west side, a new part of town for the affable Oscar. But because all phone lines were down, Moskowitz made the mistake of walking the dog back to his regular neighborhood and once Oscar realized how to get home, he only wanted to go in that direction.
An additional complication: Moskowitz feeds Oscar four pounds of raw food daily, which does not work well during a blackout. “I had to grab what I could carry down 44 flights and across town,” Moskowitz explains. Right before the storm, he stocked up with 200 pounds of Oscar’s food, figuring he would be prepared in case the storm disrupted transportation. All that food, except what he managed to carry, spoiled.
“Living out of a hotel room, spending eight days together, our relationship was never stronger,” he emphasizes. “Within a few days, the hotel was Oscar-ized with everyone knowing him. It gave some normalcy to being some sort of refugee, and having him there with me was like a security blanket.”
Even after all utilities were restored in the building Moskowitz faced another formidable challenge. His New York City office building was deluged by 5 million gallons of water in the basement, forcing him to commute to a Connecticut office daily, resulting in four to five hours of travel.
“Having a dog is like having a kid,” he acknowledges, “so I needed my dog walker to give him extra walks during the day. When I arrived home each night I spent extra time with Oscar, trying to make up for the time apart.”
Testing a family’s resolve
For 42 years clinical social worker Herman Goldstein, of Freeport, N.Y., has helped ease or even erase the psychological, emotional, anguish or behavioral dysfunction of many clients.
But Superstorm Sandy in late October put he and his wife, Lois, also a clinical social worker and a flight attendant, along with their 6-year-old Lhasa Apso therapy dog Wil and 5-year-old Keaton, a Tibetan Terrier, on the receiving end and is continuing to do so. The storm wiped out the entire first floor of their waterfront community home and all its contents, forcing them to move to a motel, where they still reside.
Keaton, he explains is “extremely sensitive toward others and can sense the good, the bad and the ugly. A therapist recognizes and greatly appreciates this. For about a week prior to Sandy, he was kind of mellow, less energetic and more prone to hang out with us. He knew. He most certainly knew!” says Herman.
In the midst of the storm, the couple had no escape route so headed for an upper-level bedroom and climbed into bed with the dogs, remaining there until daybreak when they went downstairs to assess the damage.
For the next five days, the dogs remained in the safety of the bedroom where they huddled together for warmth with the owners, but when it became apparent cleanup and repairs would take weeks and possibly months they called Keaton’s handlers Mark and Pam Desrosiers in Upstate New York to ask if they would house them. Their answer was a resounding yes, for dog people understand and take care of dog people.
“Westminster came along at a perfect time,” adds Herman. “It provided us with a sense of normalcy for a few days as we struggled to regain our lives and offered us a chance to see Keaton for the first time in three months.” When the dog set his sights on Herman at a pre-Westminster press conference in a New York City hotel, it was blastoff time and a public love fest, accented with jumping, licking, hugging and holding.
“Talk about therapy,” recalls Herman, “I was getting it in big doses and Keaton was, too. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
“Superstorm Sandy taught me to never forget your potential for a feeling of well-being, health and happiness. Stuff will happen. We can weather it. Respect and admire all living beings for they will know and return it tenfold.”
Lois adds, “While Keaton was not an award winner at Westminster, he showed with style, class and grace. He was a winner in our hearts, particularly considering what he has endured the past several months.
“We can’t wait to be a true family again with Keaton and Wil at home where they belong. Until then, we must wait and try to heal.”
You gotta love this gentle giant
When it comes to versatility, confidence and composure, 6-year-old Steed personifies all. The smooth-flowing 110-pound Borzoi, owned by G. Ariel Duncan and Ralph Jamison, of Cherry Hill, N.J., is the perfect ambassador for the breed, no matter what the size of the crowd.
In addition to his grand-champion conformation title, Steed is a licensed therapy dog, has performed with the Borzoi Club of Delaware Valley Drill Team and appeared on stage at the Met in American Ballet Theater’s production of “Giselle.” Add to that he is the cover dog of Animal Planet’s “Borzoi 101” and was a favorite at the American Kennel Club’s Meet the Breeds booth in New York City.
He added to his credentials last month with two perfect-fit Westminster Kennel Club publicity appearances –a hotel press conference featuring new breeds and New York City area show entries with special stories and a promotional appearance at Madison Square Garden between periods of a New York Rangers-New York Islanders National Hockey League game.
“He is one cool dude,” a Rangers staffer smiled in the dressing room while petting Steed before his outing in the sold-out venue.
“Steed’s greatest contribution to society is his therapy work,” emphasizes Duncan. “He has brightened the day for many senior and disabled patients in assisted-living homes. He is regularly asked to visit an Alzheimer’s section because of his laid-back personality.” His best buddy was the late David Waitz, who shared his sofa with Steed. He loved Steed, but maybe not as much as Steed loved him. If David was having a bad day, Steed could turn him into the lovable old guy he really was.
But Steed is equally adept in crowds, too, handling the herds of walkers that come thundering down the hall in these facilities to see him, adds Duncan.
Steed has literally given of himself in a totally different fashion – donating more than a gallon of blood to the Penn Animal Blood Bank bloodmobile to help save the lives of sick and injured canines like wounded police dogs. “Although he barely fits on the table (he’s 33 inches tall), he lies there quietly as though he knows the importance of his actions,” adds Duncan. “Sighthound blood is rich with red cells and highly coveted.”
His Met appearance comes in the first act of “Giselle” in a hunt scene. The elaborate, formal setting involves the sounding of horns and the arrival of a hunting party with a wild boar hanging from a spit and stuffed for a feast. Then two Borzois enter, trot around with their handlers and briefly join the party.
And, oh, yes, this tireless workaholic is an at-home guardian, too. He protects the family’s koi pond from a probing blue heron, which is a regular visitor. “When Steed spots him perched in a nearby tree, on the roof or at the edge of the pond, we open the door and he makes a run for him as the heron takes off over our head. It’s almost a game with them.”
Her journey has been spot-on
Whether it’s a St. Louis area firehouse or the green carpet of Westminster, Indy is equally comfortable. The spirited Dalmatian, owned by Kathryn Ryan-Hogan, of St. Charles, Mo., is a true Fire Dog.
“First and foremost, Indy has always been our pet,” says Ryan-Hogan. “She enriches our day and provides us with hours of entertainment. From an early age we took Indy to local events, fairs and festivals to socialize her, and also to burn off some of that boundless energy.”
And on these outings, Ryan-Hogan quickly discovered Dalmatians hold a special place in children’s hearts. “We were constantly seeing children pointing at the ‘fire dog’ and asking if they could pet her. One day we stopped at a site where a fire department was holding an open house, hoping to get a picture of Indy by a fire truck.
That became as the trigger mechanism for this special dog’s involvement in countless fire-department and community events such as firehouse open houses, Santa visits, movie nights, community outreach programs, fire-safety events, parades, festivals and 9/11 memorials.
But it doesn’t stop there. Indy is the face of “Spots for Life,” a not-for-profit organization that raises funds to provide pet oxygen mask kits for first responders. These are designed to help with the rescue of dogs and cats from smoke inhalation and other life-threatening incidents.
Indy’s fund-raising efforts have resulted in the placement of more than a dozen of these units in fire trucks, plus she has helped raise additional recent donations for the purchase of 10 more.
The AKC grand champion has also been featured in print ads in several monthly pet-nutrition and ingredient magazines. Coincidentally, Ryan-Hogan’s husband, Bill, is a companion-animal food scientist and pet-nutrition expert.
Whether she’s a showgirl or fire dog, this Dalmatian is always exhibiting an easy-going attitude, obedient behavior, friendly grin and constant tail wag, says Ryan-Hogan. “For me,” she concludes, “it’s not about the ribbons, titles or attention but about the journey. And my, what an amazing journey Indy has brought us on.”