Caring Canines

Nov 15 2010 - 11:30am

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ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner
JoAnn Jastram pets Sam at Chancellor Gardens Assisted Living Facility in Clearfield. Sam, his owner Norma Disz and her other dog, Max, visit senior care facilities almost every week and were named Volunteers of the Year by the Utah Healthcare Association.
ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner
Norma Disz gets a smooch from her Portuguese water dog, Sam, as they visit  JoAnn Jastram (left) at Chancellor Gardens Assisted Living Facility.
ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner
JoAnn Jastram pets Sam at Chancellor Gardens Assisted Living Facility in Clearfield. Sam, his owner Norma Disz and her other dog, Max, visit senior care facilities almost every week and were named Volunteers of the Year by the Utah Healthcare Association.
ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner
Norma Disz gets a smooch from her Portuguese water dog, Sam, as they visit  JoAnn Jastram (left) at Chancellor Gardens Assisted Living Facility.

Have paws will travel.

These eight feet -- two sets of four, mind you -- are often on the move, visiting area nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

Along with the feet come four bright eyes, two wet noses and two ever-wagging tails.

And when Sam or Max arrive for a visit, eager hands are reaching out to greet them. To dig fingers into the dogs' soft, wavy coats is a comfort; to feel a fuzzy head resting gently on the knee, a salve.

"It just adds something to our day, it really does," says JoAnn Jastram, petting Sam during the dog's visit to her Clearfield assisted-living center.

"You feel like somebody really loves you," she says.

Sam, 7, and Max, 3, are more than just visitors -- they're therapists, of the furry four-footed kind.

The mission of this duo, who were recently honored as Volunteers of the Year by the Utah Healthcare Association, is to spread a bit of cheer, to bring a few smiles, to make a day a little less lonely.

Or even to gather up troubles.

See the pockets on Sam's red uniform vest? asks owner Norma Disz of West Point.

"If you have troubles, you can zip them all in her little pockets -- and she'll carry them out of here," Disz is known to tell folks when she and her Portuguese water dogs visit.

Some do write things down and tuck them inside Sam's vest, she says. Others simply whisper into a pocket -- "and zip it closed."

For Disz, it's just one of the many wondrous ways folks seem to be touched by Sam and Max.

"That's what we do it for," she says.

A dog's gift

On "dog days" at Heritage Park Care Center in Roy, Sam's or Max's arrival is anticipated with as much excitement as a holiday, says recreation director Josh Post.

Post not only nominated Disz for the volunteer award, but Sam and Max as well because "the dogs are every bit as much of a volunteer as the handler."

No one can teach a dog how to sit quietly beside someone who is terminally ill, or how to calm an agitated Alzheimer's patient, Post says.

"I can't train that, Norma can't train that -- that's the dogs' gift," he says.

This is the first time dogs -- or any animal, for that matter -- have been nominated for the statewide volunteer award, says Deb Burcombe, deputy director of the Utah Healthcare Association in Salt Lake City.

Animals bring such joy to people's lives, Burcombe says, and Sam and Max work "as hard as a human volunteer ... why not recognize them?"

"We hope this is going to break new ground for more canine volunteers to get recognized," adds Burcombe, who says she received a thank-you note for the award from Sam and Max.

Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, says it's a singular honor for members Disz, Sam and Max to receive such an accolade.

"They're just extremely devoted and reliable," she says. "They always put their clients first. They know people count on them to be there, and they show up and they make a difference."

Here they come

When the ball of fluff who was "Lady Samantha Jane" arrived in Disz's life seven years ago, the idea of doing pet therapy wasn't in the picture.

But at a dog obedience class, Disz met a therapy volunteer and became intrigued.

Sam was a pup at the time and "a little wild" then, the West Point resident says, "but it was always something in the back of my mind that I wanted to do if she ever calmed down."

Calm down, she did, and Sam -- and Disz -- completed the people and animal classes required to volunteer with Intermountain Therapy Animals. The two have been a team for four years, and recently, Max -- make that Lord Maxwell Scott, who joined the family in 2007 -- also became certified.

All in all, the dogs visit four senior facilities in the Top of Utah, going on outings twice a week.

"Sam's here, Sam's here, Sam's here," Disz says she'll hear patients or residents say as she arrives with her curly-haired black and white dog. Or it's "Max is here, Max is here, Max is here."

"The kids," as Disz calls them, take turns at the facilities. While there, they may go room to room to greet residents or make the rounds to see folks gathered in a community room.

"Would you like to say hello to Sam?" says Disz, approaching a woman sitting in the living room at Chancellor Gardens in Clearfield.

Then, to Sam, she says, "Talk to the lady and tell her what a good dog you are."

Saying farewell

Sometimes, Sam shows off a few of her tricks, like high-fives, or dancing or taking a bow.

"We tell everybody she knows how to bow just in case she meets the queen," quips Disz, a retired financial management worker at Hill Air Force Base.

During years of volunteering, Sam has forged strong ties with some she visits. The Portuguese water dog has served as "official flower dog" at one patient's wedding, attended other seniors' birthday parties, and gone to her share of viewings and funerals.

"We try very hard to go and say goodbye to those we've known very well," Disz says.

Many memorable moments have occurred between Sam and her patients. Times when Sam maneuvers herself just so, so someone in a wheelchair or hospital bed can pet her. Times when, with no prompting, she worms her way right into bed to lay her head on a sick person's chest.

Or the time, at the funeral of a patient, when, unbidden, "(Sam) just stopped, and reached up, and put her paw up on the coffin," Disz says.

Such moments are hard to explain, Disz admits.

"It's something the dogs have," she adds. "To be selfish enough to keep that in my own house would be cruel."

A little TLC

Before working with her therapy dogs, Disz says she knew places like the care centers she visits existed, but they were the kind of places "you drive by with blinders on and you don't want to recognize them because you don't want to end up there."

"I'm no longer afraid of those places," she says.

But Disz says it makes her sad to know that for some patients, Sam and Max are the only beings they see outside of the center staff.

"Those are the ones we pay special attention to," she says, "the ones we know don't have anyone to come and see them."

The 'invisible' one

Disz knows who it is that would be missed most if they skipped a visit.

"I'm the one that stands on two feet and holds the red leash. That's my job," she says.

Although most of the seniors have no clue what her name is -- despite her name tag -- they do not forget Sam and Max, she says.

"I am pretty much invisible and I think that's an OK thing," Disz says. "Because they're way more important than I am. What the dogs give to the people is way more important than I will ever be. That's the good part."

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