Interior designer and Sands Point resident Eta Wright and her certified therapy dog Morgan bring lots of joy to the residents of the Sands Point Center for Health and Rehabilitation.
As Port News interviews her owner, interior designer Eta Wright, Morgan, a/k/a Mary or Mary Morgan, stands proud as if she understands the importance of the work she does. Morgan, a three-year-old standard poodle who turned three on the Fourth of July, has been fully credentialed as a therapy dog. Once a week, Morgan and Eta go to the Sands Point Center for Health and Rehabilitation, visiting the residents' rooms. Just the simple act of petting Morgan and perhaps giving her a treat cheers the nursing home residents enormously, making them smile when little else does. "They so look forward to her visits," said Eta. "They brighten up when they see her. One woman is content just to hold her leash." The health and emotional benefits of therapy pets - and even "regular" pets - have been well documented.
Morgan has been certified by Therapy Dogs International to go into hospitals and nursing homes, as well as other institutions and special programs. She has undergone a three-month extensive training program and passed a rigorous test in obedience and good manners, and has learned, for example, not to steal food or bark when in the therapy situation, as well as how to relate to persons with mobility aids, to ignore distractions, and generally how to behave appropriately. "She may climb on the lap of someone in a wheelchair, or put paws on the bed of a bedridden patient," said Eta. Many of the residents that Morgan visits suffer from Alzheimer's or senile dementia, and Eta commented that often they will remember the dog's name when they may not remember family members' names. The "Mary" alias, incidentally, came about because some of the clients had difficulty pronouncing "Morgan."
Eta said that she became involved in this program about two years ago. Prior to that, she had participated in dog shows and the like, but wanted to do something more satisfying. "I have been so blessed to live in this town," she said, "that I wanted to give something back." She added, "It is so rewarding, so fulfilling." Eta is so enthusiastic about her participation that she persuaded a neighborhood friend, who asked to remain anonymous, to participate in the program as well. Morgan, too, seems to find her work very rewarding. "She gets so excited when we pull up in front of the nursing home," said Eta. Eta has lived in Port Washington for over 38 years, 17 of them in Sands Point. She is affiliated with Paper Capers on Port Washington Boulevard, where she practices interior design specializing in painted furniture and boxes, and where Morgan serves as mascot. Eta has two grown children following in her footsteps: one as a veterinary radiologist and one as a designer.
Another local resident, Lourdes Anduiza, a social worker at Shields Institute in Queens, employs her cocker spaniel, Annabelle, to do pet therapy with her clients, persons with cognitive, social, and/or physical disabilities.
"What does Annabelle bring to the clients?" we asked. Lourdes replied, "It's really, really great. A lot of our patients have significant delays. They are not great socially, and some have physical limitations. When Annabelle is there, they just open up, laughing." She added, "It teaches them social skills." As an example, she cited one client who has a hard time being around other people. She said, "He has learned how to be gentle and to wait for Annabelle to come to him."
A lot of the work they do, Lourdes said, is done in groups. The dogs facilitate group sharing and learning social skills. They are actually an adjunct to the therapy and teaching that the social workers are doing. Lourdes said, "There is group sharing. They [the patients] learn to work with their peers. It is an opportunity for them to learn to interact and to respond to what's around them and to relate to other people." She added, "A lot of the clients are non-verbal and it is great to see how they light up around the dog. They pet her and get kisses in return."
Lourdes commented that Annabelle seems to know when she is working. (This won't surprise anyone who has been around dogs.) "She loves to play and jump up on me, but when we are in group, she will sit on my lap for extended periods." Eta made similar comments about Morgan. "At Paper Capers she will bark to announce the arrival of a customer, but she never barks at the nursing home."
Lourdes first became interested in pet therapy in graduate school. Annabelle is actually the offspring of one of the therapy dogs that she worked with in graduate school. Annabelle was certified by Bide-A-Wee as a therapy pet. Other places that were mentioned that provide certification are the ASPCA and the Delta Society.
Lourdes' friend Carolyn Corkett, who used to bring her dogs to a brain injury unit where her mother was being cared for, summed it up by saying, "It is amazing that we can bring that much happiness to so many people."
(Editor's note: This article was suggested to the Port News by Port Washington's popular veterinarian, Dr. Jay Berkowitz, who provides care to Eta and some of the other therapy dogs mentioned in the article. He also generously provides care to rescued dogs at the North Shore Animal League and through the Long Island Golden Retriever Rescue, and most likely in other places that he is too modest to mention.)