ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s a warm summer morning, and 10 dogs are gathered in the parking lot, tethered to humans by leashes sleeved with small, snazzy turquoise and black tags bearing their names and their affiliation with High Desert Therapy Dogs.
Here’s Zia, a stately black German shepherd and the biggest in the bunch. There’s Gracie, the chihuahua mix and the smallest. Leonard and Lucy, the Brussels griffons who look to all the world like wookies. Tessie the yorkie poo. Suki the Japanese Chin. Carli the beagle. Two Socks, a golden poshie, whose two white front paws give him his name.
The humans chatter merrily through their masks. A few bump elbows in greeting, coronavirus style.
But these dogs are silent, stoic, refusing to sniff each others’ nether regions, abstaining from tugging at their leashes. They even pant quietly.
“We say that our dogs are snobs,” said Patricia Newman, human to Radar, a papillon with silky supermodel hair.
The dogs are here to work. And their work is to spread good cheer and comfort simply by being good dogs.
COVID-19 has made the work harder. Visitor restrictions at nursing homes, rehabs and hospitals and the shutdown of schools, libraries and offices have curtailed much of what High Desert Therapy Dogs do.
But the humans, who are sometimes more resourceful than dogs, have found a way to salvage some of those visits, including to some of the most isolated and most at-risk people most in need of a few smiles.
“We decided to try window visits,” said John Youberg, president of High Desert Therapy Dogs, a group of about 40 humans and their pups that formed in July after splintering off from the Southwest Canine Corps of Volunteers, which also does similar visits with its dogs.
Put simply, the members walk their dogs around the exterior of a facility, stopping at the windows marked by signs that read “Dog visit here.”
“I call it a walkabout,” said Newman, secretary of the group.
Smaller dogs are held up to the windows for the occupant inside to coo over; larger dogs are encouraged to stand up on their hind legs for better viewing.
It’s Wednesday morning when we meet, one of two days each week that the dogs visit the residents of Avamere Rehabilitation at Fiesta Park and The Village at Alameda, an assisted-living facility next door on Horizon NE.
Both facilities have been on lockdown with no visits allowed since March 12, although that hasn’t stopped COVID-19 from sneaking in and infecting a few residents and staff. Just last Sunday a woman in her 90s at The Village was reported to have died from the virus.
More than ever, the dogs alleviate the loneliness within these walls, at least for a few moments.
“Dogs touch people in ways no human can,” Newman said, relating several Radar examples – the woman struck mute by a stroke who spoke her first word when the papillon popped in, the man comforted by the pup’s presence after the loss of his own dog, the patient nicknamed Stone Face for her blank expression who laughed when Radar jumped in her lap.
Julie Davis, Avamere activities director, said it’s easy to see how important the therapy dogs’ visits are to the residents.
“It brings them so much joy,” she said. “With COVID-19 taking away so much from them, the visits, the outside activities, it’s the little things that mean so much more. Seeing these dogs is the height of their day.”
The windows at Avamere make it easier for those inside to see outside than it is for those outside to see inside. Still, the glass cannot hide the broad smile spreading across the face of Eloy Gonzales, 72, as each dog takes its turn at his window.
“You see him? You see him?” Kaili Butare said to her dog Kecil, coaxing the golden doodle to press his face closer to the window. “Yeah!”
Gonzales stretches a trembling hand to the window toward the curly dog’s snout, as if he is petting the dog.
For now, this is enough.
Therapy dogs undergo obedience training, are evaluated for their personalities and interactions and attend several training visits. Although the work has decreased because of the pandemic, it’s still a big time commitment.
“The thing is, we love what we do,” said Linda Stephens, human to Zia the German shepherd. “Our dogs usually get paid in pets and snuggles, and what we get is to see people smile. That’s the best pay I’ve ever received.”
An hour into the dog parade and the heat has become uncomfortable for the humans, who appear sweaty and breathless behind their masks.
The dogs, even in their fur coats, still look fresh and ready for another walkabout, another smile behind the window, another nose pressed against the glass, another pet they cannot feel but seem to understand it’s there anyway.
Dogs are good that way.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, email@example.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.