Paw power

Local group helps people get by with a little help from their four-legged friends.

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

There is nothing like coming home after a long day and being greeted by your four-legged furry friend. It almost seems selfish that the joy of owning a dog can’t be shared with everyone, especially those who can use some cheering up. Two years ago, Bob Wharton decided it can.

In 2015, Wharton founded Therapy Dogs International Chapter №294, which is based out of Bucks County. Though the chapter started with only six members, it has now reached 51 members and 53 dogs. Therapy Dogs International is one of the largest therapy dog organizations in the world. Established in 1976 in Flanders, New Jersey, it has more than 23,000 dog handler teams across the country.

Furry friends: Pictured are (from left) Carole Davis and Chloe; Davis’ granddaughter Emily and Murray; Maria Gergal and Buddy; Director Bob Wharton and Jackson; and Dave Stercula and Rocky. PHOTO Samantha Bambino / TIMES PHOTO

Chapter №294 travels across Bucks County attending fairs and parades, but more importantly, visiting places such as hospitals, nursing homes and autistic support schools where the love of the dogs is most needed. On April 12, a group of five members and their dogs visited The Birches at Newtown, a senior living residence. Though the visit was no more than 30 minutes, the smiles of the residents and staff stretched ear to ear. Buddy the Rottweiler spent time resting his head on the knee of one resident, while Murray the Shetland Sheepdog, the youngest of the group, happily made his way around the room.

Members of the chapter are all involved for one common reason — to give back. According to founding member Carole Davis, petting a dog lowers the patient’s blood pressure. It gives an older person a living creature to talk to, and also helps children improve their reading skills.

“I was in the minute I read about it,” handler Dave Stercula said, as his Bassett Hound, Rocky, lounged on the floor next to him.

Man’s best friend: On April 12, a group of five Therapy Dogs International members and their dogs visited The Birches at Newtown, a senior living residence. The Bucks County chapter of the organization started with only six members, but has now reached 51 members and 53 dogs. PHOTO Samantha Bambino / TIMES PHOTO

Therapy Dogs International hosts a program called “Tail Waggin’ Tutors,” which allows students to practice reading to a therapy dog instead of an entire class. The dog will usually lay down and listen while the child reads, allowing them to make mistakes in a non-judgmental environment. Davis explained how many children’s stuttering vanishes when reading to the dogs, and how the calm temperament of the dogs allows them to get over fear of animals.

The therapy dog teams consist of normal people with loveable dogs, and while anybody is welcome to join, the dogs need to meet certain criteria. Most importantly, according to Wharton, they must have a calm temperament and display a certain amount of obedience, which includes not taking food off tables or jumping on residents. The dogs should be comfortable around medical equipment, since they attend numerous hospitals, and must be at least 1 year old.

Though these visits are rewarding for the owners, the dogs are not forgotten. After so many visits, awards are distributed to recognize their hard work. Wharton and his Golden Retriever, Jackson, are at almost 800 visits, while Maria Gergal and her Rottweiler, Buddy, are nearing 500, which will give them the Gold Award.

Chapter №294 will have a booth at the Langhorne Rotary Pet Fair and Family Day on May 13 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Mayor’s Playground. Several therapy dog teams will be present, so attendees can stop by to pet the dogs and de-stress. For more information, visit eventbrite.com/e/langhorne-pet-fair-family-day-2017-registration-31333924612.

The chapter is constantly looking for new members willing to share their dog’s companionship with those who need it most. More information can be found on the Therapy Dog International website, tdi-dog.org. Those interested can also contact Wharton at bob7475@aol.com or through the chapter’s Facebook page at facebook.com/tdichapter294. ••