Terri Stafford used to take Lulu, her border collie mix, to medical facilities as part of a Baltimore-based volunteer program that enabled her to share her beloved pet's affection with others in need of it.
"We did that for several years until Lulu got too sick" with cancer, said Stafford, a retired registered nurse who lives in Baltimore County. "Toward the end, when Lulu wasn't feeling well, she spent a lot of time hiding in the closet. But I'd say, 'Lulu, let's go visiting.' And she'd come running out and jump in the car. She loved it.
"I also used to enjoy the way people would light up when I would bring Lulu to visit them," Stafford said. "That really made me happy."
Now that Lulu has died, Stafford has a new dog, Tango, a mixed breed she adopted about six months ago as rescue dog.
She's looking forward to making similar "comfort dog" visits with Tango. That's why on April 3, she was among the dozen or so individuals and families who brought their dogs to the monthly orientation program hosted by Howard County Paws4Comfort at Columbia's Bain Senior Center.
Paws4Comfort — formerly called Pets on Wheels — relies on a network of volunteers who make regular, scheduled visits with their pets to nursing facilities, assisted-living residences, adult day care facilities and senior centers around the county.
A volunteer program administered through the Howard County Department of Aging, Paws4Comfort is always looking for more two-legged and four-legged volunteers willing to share with others the unconditional attention pets can provide.
"It's one of the most heartwarming, spiritually uplifting experiences you'll ever have," said Ingrid Gleysteen, program director of Howard County Paws4Comfort, as she talked with prospective volunteers and their dogs at the orientation.
The dogs attending ranged in size from tiny to huge. Some whined or fidgeted anxiously; others sprawled languidly, eyes half-closed, at their owners' feet.
"I don't care how tired or depressed you are on a particular day, you'll find that if you drag yourself to your car and make a visit, you'll leave with a smile on your face," Gleysteen said.
Longtime volunteer Cheryl Kirtley of Columbia shared her experiences with Sophie, her rescue Chihuahua, and gave testament to the power of animal attraction.
"I was a nervous wreck the first time I made a visit, and I think Sofie was a little afraid when we first started," Kirtley recalled. "But the way it has worked out, it feels like something we were meant to do. Sophie now has a fan club at the facility where we visit. If we're late for one of our weekly visits, believe me, we hear about it.
"I encourage everyone to join up and get a good deed under your belt," she said.
Gleysteen and other Paws4Comfort associates conduct brief interviews with each pet owner, then put the pets — all dogs on this particular evening, though cats are eligible — through brief "temperament tests" to determine their suitability as visitation dogs.
Kathy Hurd of Woodstock sat patiently as Gleysteen tested Gunner, her large, affectionate Labrador-Rottweiler mix. Gleysteen got Gunner to lie down and roll over. She gently pulled his ears, pulled his tail and pinched his feet and otherwise subjected him to the sensations and sounds he might experience as a visitation dog.
All the while, Gleysteen politely peppered Hurd with questions: Has Gunner ever growled at a person or another animal? Does he get on well with little kids, bigger kids and other animals? Does he react to loud noises, like a vacuum cleaner or something dropped on the floor?
"Does he do tricks?" she asked.
Gunner passed his preliminary screening with flying colors. The next step will be for Gleysteen to observe Hurd and Gunner on their initial visit to one of the senior or care centers.
Gleysteen said most dogs she tests turn out to be suitable visitation dogs.
"And if your dog doesn't [qualify], that certainly doesn't mean he or she isn't a wonderful dog," she said.
"The beauty of this program is its simplicity," Gleysteen added. "As long as your dog likes people and you can handle your dog, that's about all there is to it."
Howard County Paws4Comfort orientations and evaluations are held at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month at the Bain Center, 5470 Ruth Keeton Way, Columbia. To be eligible, dogs must have a current animal license, proof of vaccinations and a health certificate. An application can be downloaded at http://www.howardcountymd.gov. For more details, contact Program Director Ingrid Gleysteen at 410-313-746 or firstname.lastname@example.org.