Pets on Wheels puts smiles on faces

Laura Ehrlich, 94, smiled with delight when she saw Kelly walking past her chair in the North Oaks retirement community in Pikesville.

"Hi there, Kelly," she said. "Hi there, girl."


Bunny and Mike Roseman patted Kelly on the head and greeted her happily.

Kelly isn't a grandchild of one of the residents, nor is she a resident, relative or employee. Kelly is a dog.


"When she comes to visit, it's like a child coming to see you," Ehrlich said. "She shows affection, she shows love. Just look at the way her tail goes back and forth, she's so happy to see us. She's so affectionate, it's just lovely."

Kelly is a therapy dog with the Maryland nonprofit Pets on Wheels. Since she qualified for the program four years ago, she and owner Steve Lesser have been visiting North Oaks weekly, among other locations, donating their time and love.

The nonprofit, which dates to 1982, provides pet therapy for residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals, said executive director Pat Pawloski.

"It's a service that's not invasive, as far as medicine is concerned, but that has some real health benefits," said Pawloski, who cited lowered blood pressure, decreased stress levels and improved emotional wellbeing as examples.

Plus, seeing the therapy dogs brings smiles to the residents' faces.

"There's something special that a dog can offer that regular people can't do," said Mark Pressman, the executive director of North Oaks. "When Steve comes to the door, people just light up. It's a different kind of feeling, a sense of relaxation people get when a dog is around."

Pets on Wheels serves 15 counties in Maryland, with nearly 500 human volunteers and roughly 450 animal volunteers. Aside from dogs, other therapy pets include cats, rabbits and bearded dragons, Pawloski said, but 90 percent of the therapy animals are canines, the most popular breed being golden retrievers.

"It takes a certain type of temperament for an animal to be able to do this," Pawloski said, "that's probably why there are so many dogs and retrievers especially. They're naturals for this type of work."


Before being certified as a Pets on Wheels therapy animal, the animal must pass a behavior screening to test their interactions with humans and other animals and owners must provide health certificates. Essentially, the nonprofit wants to make sure the dog has the right mood for the job, Lesser said. "They want the animals to be sweet: no growling, snarling or showing teeth."

The nonprofit was created by a retired allergist, Frank Furstenberg, who was interested in studying the effects of therapy-assisted visits with patients. Working with the Baltimore Department of Aging, Furstenberg set up a study of four different hospitals in the area, recruited some volunteers and the mission grew from there, Pawloski said.

While volunteer numbers are growing — since January 2014, 140 human volunteers have joined the program — there is a continuing demand, Pawloski said. There are 18 facilities in the state on a waiting list for volunteers.

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To Lesser, volunteering is a "win-win-win," with residents, volunteers and animals all benefiting from the program.

"The residents get so much pleasure out of it, the dogs love the attention and the enjoyment that people are getting from my dogs makes it very worthwhile for me," Lesser said. "It's my way of giving back."

Volunteers are required to spend only one hour per month visiting facilities with their pets, but Lesser visits North Oaks two hours every week, in addition to making stops at Springhouse Assisted Living and Arden Courts, both in Pikesville.


"When Kelly visits, it brightens the day," said Bunny Roseman, 86. "I think most people think that. For us, she takes the place of our granddog who passed away. She's been our new granddog."

Ehrlich echoed Roseman's sentiments, adding that she too feels the benefits of the company of "Kelly Belly."

"With older people, our hearing and our sight might go, but we always have our memories," she said. "For people who've had pets all our life, visits from animals are like old friends coming to visit. No matter what you do, these dogs love you — you could give them all the money in the world and they wouldn't stop loving you."