By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Westborough – Many people in their 70s take the opportunity to slow down and enjoy their golden years. Not Tania and Bob Pano. Thanks to this special couple and their dog and two cats, countless people, young and especially older, have found a gentle and comforting peace when they needed it most.
About six years ago, Bob, who is a retired teacher, was volunteering as a dog walker at the Baypath Humane Society of Hopkinton, Inc., when he first met Cassie, a beautiful Golden Retriever who had been turned in that day by her previous family. His bond with Cassie was immediate, Bob said, and after consulting with Tania, the dog came home to Westborough with them.
Although Cassie was well-behaved, Tania decided to take her to Especially for Pets in Westborough for a bit more training. There she learned about a pet-assisted therapy program, the Pets and People Foundation. Cassie soon passed the certification necessary to be a therapy dog. Tania is now also a member of the organization’s Board of Directors.
Tania loves dogs but she also has a very special connection with her three Scottish Fold cats, Lynsey Lu, MacKenzie Connor, and Toots Sweet Caroline.
“Tania has such a rapport with them,” Bob marveled. “She can get them to perform such tricks as sitting, laying down and offering a paw on command.”
Lynsey and MacKenzie have been certified therapy cats since they were just a few months old. (The Panos hope that Toots and the family’s newest addition, mixed breed dog Bosco, will someday be certified as well.)
For the past few years, the couple, along with Lynsey, MacKenzie and Cassie, have spent time visiting local nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.
Cassie, as is typical for Golden Retrievers, is friendly and gentle with the elders, calmly approaching them and then allowing them to pat and praise her.
“She does all the work,” Bob laughed. “I am just there.”
Tania dresses the cats in cute outfits and wheels them around in a baby carriage when they go to their therapy appointments. Once they get to their destination, the cats stay put until she lifts them out and places them on the lap of someone who needs a little TLC.
“The cats just sense what to do,” Tania said. “They will just sit quietly on a lap for as the long as the elder wants. You can just see the stress melt off the person’s whole demeanor.”
The Panos and their pets often offer support at other occasions. One of the most affecting sessions they have had, they noted, was when they went into Boston just days after the marathon bombings. There, they met with many who had come to the finish line to grieve and seek solace among others. Amidst the sea of people, the three pets did their job perfectly, Bob said, offering comfort in a time of terrible sadness.
“So many people came up to us,” Tania recalled. “They just wanted to pat them or hold them for a few minutes.”
She recalled two especially poignant moments.
“I was a little nervous about saying Lynsey Lu’s name because it is so close to Lingzi Lu, who died in the bombings,” she said. “So when one young Chinese woman came over, I told her what the cat’s name was, but made sure to tell her that was her name before the bombings.”
The young woman did not say anything, but just held Lynsey Lu for a moment and then left.
“But then she came back two other times,” Tania said. “She was drawn to her on some level.”
Lynsey Lu also worked her special magic on a little girl who asked if she could hold the cat.
“The mother told Bob that it was the first time she had seen her daughter smile since the bombings,” Tania said.
As it turned out, Krystle Campbell, who had also died in the attacks, had been the little girl’s babysitter.
Over the past year, the therapy crew extended their work, meeting with local high school students and offering a bit of furry stress relief during final exams.
“We’d love to do more of that,” Tania said.
And Bob and Cassie have added yet another job to their resumes, joining the K9 First Responders. As such, they are trained as an “all-hazards psychological trauma response team.” Teams in this program provide aid and comfort to individuals, groups and communities who have been affected by violence, tragedy or traumatic events.
“I am really excited about this,” Bob said. “It will give us another opportunity to help others.”
“At this stage of our lives we are busier than ever. And we love it,” Tania said.
“In a way, this is very spiritual work. I feel like it’s part of a much bigger picture,” Bob added. “I feel so humbled and blessed to be able to do this at this time of my life.”
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