Comfort Creature

A conversation with a therapy dog.

Author by Jessica Wakeman
Credit: Twisha Patni

This winter, we met Fonzie, a German Shepherd. Here’s what he told us:

[tail wags]

Hi! My name is Fonzie. I love tennis balls. I love to go to the country. And I love Labrador retrievers!

But you wanted to talk to me about my job, didn’t you? Well, my job is to help people feel good. My mom, Renee, is a volunteer with The Good Dog Foundation. I will tell you how that happened.

Mom got me from upstate New York. I used to work with Guiding Eyes For Blind. You know, helping people who cannot see well? But … umm … I wasn’t so good at that. See, I would get nervous making decisions in traffic. Like when we got to a crosswalk, I would look up at my trainer and want help! They said I couldn’t do that, ‘cause I had to make the decisions. But that’s okay! I am still a good boy.

[tail wags]

I was almost two years old Guiding Eyes released me. That’s when I came to live in Brooklyn with Mom. After four months of just us, Mom took me to school again for a Good Dog class. Yeah, even though Mom is the director of training, we still had to take the class together!

[scratch, scratch, yawn]

Before we could become volunteers, Mom and I took six weeks of classes with The Good Dog Foundation. First we brushed up on my obedience skills. I didn’t need that so much, because Mom says I came to her “perfect.” In the class—

[lick, lick]

— you have to obey your mom without being asked a bunch of times, or without getting a treat. And no jumping when I say “hi”! That one is hard, because I am very friendly. I like children. I like tall men in hats. I like everybody! But I know not to jump. I am a big, big boy, but I am very calm.

And I learned how not to get distracted when I am working. Schools and hospitals can be loud. At Good Dog school, they would run past me and drop things and open umbrellas and I learned how not to pay attention to other noises.

[sniff, sniff]

They taught us obedience for the first two weeks. The rest of the class was lots of rules for the humans. Did you know Mom has to wash her hands after every patient that I meet? She also had to learn about this human thing called HIPAA laws, which means we don’t talk to anyone about the people we meet who are sick. Good Dog trains the humans for volunteering as much as they train the dogs like me.

Oh! And I learned how to ride in an elevator like a good boy! Not everybody at a hospital is expecting to see me. Sometimes that is a big surprise for them! And I learned what to do around a wheelchair. Wheelchairs looked so strange to me at first, but now I know it’s just a place for my friends to sit.

So after six weeks of school, Mom said we got “certified,” which was very exciting! That was a year-and-a-half ago. Mom and I have to get “certified” every year. We are one of 760 Good Dog Foundation teams. I know when my blue vest comes out, it means I get to go somewhere. That makes me so excited!

[tail wags]

Now my favorite thing to do is make new friends. Every week, Mom and I go the infusion center for NewYork Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. We go visit my friends who are getting something called “chemo” or this other thing called “dialysis.” They’re not having a good day, I think.

When Mom and I show up at the infusion center, usually someone escorts us around. We go person to person to make new friends. Mom stands off to the side — she calls it “a nice, polite distance” — and asks if they want to meet me. Sometimes they say “no,” but most of them say “yes”! The best is when someone who said “no” changes their mind and says “yes.”

[tail wags]

At the infusion center, I see my “regulars.” That’s what Mom calls the friends who I have had a long time. I’m not so good with names, but I do remember everybody’s special smells! We see some friends every single week. So that’s why we go every Friday at 1:30 p.m. on the dot. Unless one of us is sick, we have to go, because we don’t want to disappoint anyone. Mom says people schedule their chemo appointments around my visit!

[tail wags vigorously]

When I see my friends, I try to tell them with my eyes that I would like some pats! I do get lots of pats, but also, I give them my paw. Look what I can do!

[lifts paw]

I really like to make new friends, but I can get so relaxed that I just lay down. But if I really like you, I will lick your hand like this.

[licks hand]

I like to lick faces, too. But I don’t do that unless Mom says so. She will ask my friend, “Incoming kiss? Is that okay?” and if my friend says yes, I give them a big smooch.

[wags tail]

Sometimes my new friend will chat with Mom. When we were taking Good Dog school together, Mom learned what kind of things my friends would say to her when we visit them. My friends usually don’t feel good and they may be feeling sad or scared. Mom knows how to talk about the pets they have at home or used to have a long time ago.

Sometimes my new friends are a little confused. They are very old and aren’t sure what is happening. But that’s okay. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m happy to see anyone who is happy to see me.

[scratch, scratch]

Sometimes I make new friends who had bad things happen to me. Dogs like me have to be chosen to learn how to meet them. It’s a special job and it’s called “crisis response.”

[wags tail]

Even though I am a dog, I know when something bad has happened. Mom says I can smell when people are upset. Sometimes my new friends saw people get hurt. Like last summer, we went to a hospital in the Bronx. A man who used to work there hurt a lot of people. I don’t know why he did that. But I know people at the hospital felt scared. So everybody had a meeting to talk about what happened, and Mom and I came, too. If I can help people feel less sad and scared, I feel good.

Sometimes I make friends who are staying in a shelter because something happened to their homes. Sometimes my friends are crying. All the people I meet are different. But I love them all the same way. Mom says unconditional love is the universal language. When bad things happen, sometimes people don’t want to talk about it. They just want comfort. That’s what I can do.

[lick, lick]

Oh, and one more thing: When we go on visits, Mom says we won’t leave until my new friend says that I made his day.

And that actually happens pretty quickly.

[tail wags]

Renee Payne, director of training, and Rachel McPherson, founder, and president of the Good Dog Foundation helped with this interview. The Good Dog Foundation provides animal-assisted therapy services in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

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A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.