Pets on Wheels spreads cheer in Harford County to those who need it, one lick at a time

For Harford Magazine

Pets make people happy. That’s the simple — but profound — concept behind Pets on Wheels, a nonprofit that connects pets (and their owners) with people who might need a cheerful face and perhaps a friendly lick or two.

“It is a completely simple concept: you take your pets to visit with people in hospitals, hospice, veterans, schools, libraries, and it brings a lot of happiness to the people you visit and a lot of happiness to the pet,” says Rachael Rice, who, along with her dog Augie, has volunteered with Pets on Wheels for about two years. The duo frequently visit residents at Bel Air Assisted Living.

The Pets on Wheels network includes about 500 pet-owner volunteer teams who visit locations throughout Maryland west of the Chesapeake Bay.

The organization’s mission is bolstered by decades of scientific research demonstrating the potential positive impact of pets on human health. Researchers have found that petting rabbits can relieve anxiety in adults, children who struggle with reading may feel more confident when reading to a therapy dog trained to listen and therapy pets can help alleviate fear and anxiety in post-traumatic stress disorder patients.

“We are somewhat unique in that we allow pets of all species and breeds, but we have strict health requirements and temperament requirements,” explains the organization’s executive director (and former Harford magazine editor) Gina Kazimir. “Our animals do need good manners and a particularly good ‘leave it’ command. We don’t want any animals picking up anything they shouldn’t be.”

To qualify as a Pets on Wheels volunteer, pet and owner teams must pass a basic obedience test indicating good communication and that the pet can sit “politely” and wait patiently. The test also ensures that the pet won’t be “spooked” by unusual noises or things like walkers or wheelchairs.

The most important thing, Kazimir says, is that volunteer animals enjoy meeting and interacting with new people.

For Dave Pawloski and his golden retriever Bethanie, volunteering with Pets on Wheels is immensely gratifying.

“I get choked up thinking about it,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to be able to give back a little bit. She brings so much cheer and joy to the people she visits.”

Pawloski and Bethanie frequently visit the senior homes Lorien Bel Air and Brightview in Perry Hall. He enjoys interacting with residents, hearing about pets they have had and watching how making a connection with Bethanie draws people out of their shells.

Rice agrees. “There’s nothing I love more than spending time with my dog and if we can bring some pleasure to someone else, I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.”

For more information about Pets on Wheels activities in Harford County, visit petsonwheels.org

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