Meet Taco and Albert, two very special canines

They’re an unusual sight: a floppy-eared, sad-eyed hound and a bright-eyed mixed breed ball of fur wandering the halls of Bayhealth-Kent General.

But these pups aren’t lost: they’re looking for friends they haven’t yet made.

Albert the basset hound and Taco, the Pekingese/Pembroke Welsh corgi mix, are just two of more than four dozen canines working with National Capital Therapy Dogs.

The NCTD is an all-volunteer nonprofit that brings trained dogs to visit with people in hospitals, schools and veterans homes. They’ve been active on Delmarva for about four years.

“It’s pretty much about sharing the joy of our dogs with others,” said Beth Peterson, who coordinates NCTD visits throughout the peninsula. Peterson owns Taco and eight other dogs, some of which are working or retired therapy dogs.

“One dog and a person can go into a hospital or nursing home and really help someone forget their worries or their pain for a little bit,” said Albert’s owner, Mary Stewart. “It just helps bring a smile to their faces.”

Life’s work

Peterson’s love of dogs started early: she wandered off as a child and was found lying on top of a neighbor’s German shepherd, playing with its ears. Although she’s held other jobs, including a 12-year stint as a veterinary technician, she considers her volunteer efforts to be her life’s work.

One of her first encounters with the idea of using dogs to help was in a nursing home when her dog went up to an invalid woman and just snuggled under her arm. The woman suddenly started talking to the dog and thanked Peterson when she left.

The staff said the woman had been a patient for five years and hadn’t spoken to them in that time, she said.

“I figured if my dog could bring that much joy to someone, I had to continue,” she said.

Stewart grew up on a farm and knew much about human/animal interaction. She also cares for her disabled husband.

“I’m used to seeing people who are in pain or who are frustrated with their limitations when they can’t do what they want,” she said.

Albert, 7, came into her life five years ago, burdened by medical issues, including a heartworm infestation. Despite that, she fell in love.

“He was so friendly and he loved everybody, I knew I had to do something to share him,” she said.

Training for pups and people

Training for all therapy dogs involves 16 weeks of obedience classes where the animals are taught how to interact with people and what it’s like to be around large groups, loud noises and hospital equipment. All carry liability insurance.

Owners also learn how to handle themselves and how to react to different situations in hospitals or schools, she said.

Properly trained, almost any breed can be part of the program, Peterson said.

“It just has to be a dog who seems to like people, and even dogs who don’t seem to be terribly affectionate can still make good therapy dogs,” she said.

The NCTD group includes animals ranging from small mixed-breeds to a 120-pound Newfoundland.

Peterson found 10-year-old Taco in 2012 and adopted him just before he was scheduled to be put down. He’s proven to be the perfect therapy dog, and has been recognized by the American Kennel Club for making more than 400 visits.

Taco and Albert made their rounds together at Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital Sunday morning, encountering people in the hallways and walking through the emergency room. ER nurses greeted the pair with enthusiasm.

“Everyone here knows them,” nurse Holly Robinson said as she rubbed Albert’s ears. “They make all of our days better.”

The dogs even help hospital workers, patient advocate Cindy Van Sant said.

“We had a new computer program going online and a lot of people were working 24/7 to get it going,” she said. “The stress levels were very high.

“[The dogs] came in just for them. Everyone was really looking forward to it and everyone really appreciated it.”

The dogs also visit the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford and the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Smyrna.

“We love them, they’re absolutely fabulous,” said DHCI volunteer services coordinator Jennifer Bobel. “Our patients don’t get many visitors and these visits really brighten their days. It’s something they really look forward to.”

Although their NCTD duties take up a fair amount of their free time, the effort is worth the cost, particularly when visiting the bedridden or severely ill, Stewart said.

“I’ve heard more stories about how people had dogs in their families, years ago, and it really brings back memories for them,” she said. “And our dogs just sit there and wag their tails. It just makes everyone’s day a bit better.”

To learn more about therapy dogs, visit nctdinc.org.