By Bonnie Adams
Shrewsbury – For a person suffering from Alzheimer's Disease or dementia, the world can be a confusing, lonely place. Often a voice or music can bring to mind a pleasant memory. But sometimes it's a wet nose attached to the face of a dog that can offer the most comfort and gently jog a person's memory back to an earlier, happier time.
One such dog is Willow, an 8-year-old Greyhound who does therapy work with her owner, Nancy Gilbert of Shrewsbury. For the past three years, Gilbert and Willow have been going once a month to the Notre Dame du Lac Assisted Living facility in Worcester to visit with residents of the specialized care unit located there, Harmony.
Willow, like so many other Greyhounds, first started off life as a racing dog, but was not fast enough. Luckily for her, she was rescued and then adopted out of Greyhound Friends, Inc. in Hopkinton by Gilbert.
On a recent visit to Harmony, both Gilbert and Willow were greeted warmly by the residents, some whom remembered them from before and some who did not.
With each resident, Willow was calm, never barking, whimpering or making any noise. Some of patients were eager for a chance to pat her; others just stroked her head softly and smiled, perhaps remembering a dog of their own from the past.
The residents were eager to learn more about Willow and her life with Gilbert. At times Gilbert was asked a same question that she had already answered. Each time she answered it again patiently, with a smile, as she slowly walked around the room so everyone got a turn to greet Willow.
“She loves coming here – she gets lots of attention,” Gilbert told the residents.
After their visit at Harmony, Gilbert and Willow strolled through the facility, greeting small groups of residents who were playing cards or board games. Each time, Willow patiently stopped and offered her head for a pat.
Debbie Malbeuf, the Harmony Program director, said that “Nancy and Willow have done a tremendous job with the residents here. The residents just love them. Nancy is so gentle and kind and Willow has such a great personality, too.”
Gilbert and Willow also participate in the Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (READ) program at the Shrewsbury Public Library. Twice a month during the school year, the two go to the library, where kids in kindergarten through grade three can sign up to read to Willow.
Linda Dashnaw is the head of Children's Services at the library.
“Nancy and Willow are wonderful with the kids,” Dashnaw said. “Sometimes the kids are a little nervous, but this is a great way to introduce them to dogs in a non-threatening way. We'se had kids who were a bit afraid but then really warmed up to Willow and another dog (Kuma, a Newfoundland) in the program.”
“The kids think it's kind of fun to read to a dog,” Gilbert said. “It helps to give them confidence in their reading ability because after all, a dog doesn's criticize or correct. She just listens.”
In order to do this kind of work, Gilbert and Willow had to be certified by the Delta Society's Pet Partners Program. Gilbert first took classes through the Massachusetts Pet Partners Program at Tufts Veterinary School in North Grafton on her own and then worked with Willow at home. Willow then needed to pass a test to become certified as a therapy dog.
“Predictable behavior is the most important thing,” Gilbert said. “The training helps to introduce commotion to the dog to see how they will act around things such as wheelchairs and walkers.
“The emphasis is always on the dog and how the dog will react in certain situations.”
For more information on pet therapy programs, visit www.masspetpartners.org.