METUCHEN – For years, Bruiser, the late black Labrador therapy dog, with his owner Joanne Markano, was a regular in the area with more than 200 visits to Menlo Park Elementary School in Edison and more than 100 visits to the Children’s Room of the Metuchen Public Library.
His legacy lives on through a book collection in the Children’s Room with the support of the library’s director, Hsi Hsi Chung, and Joanne Jacobson, the children’s services specialist at the library.
A framed photo of Bruiser adorns the collection about therapy and service dogs.
After a two-year hiatus after Bruiser passed, Markano is back visiting with her newest addition, Niles, a two-year-old black Labrador, who was certified as a therapy dog in July 2021.
Twice a month Niles visits the Children’s Room comforting those he comes across. Markano said they have regulars who come just to see Niles and read to him.
Bruiser and now Niles were trained and certified as therapy dogs through Creature Comfort Pet Therapy: Cold Noses, Warm Hearts, a non-profit organization based in Morristown enhancing people’s lives through therapeutic visits with caring volunteers and their pets.
“Visits run the gamut,” explained Steve Herz, a founding member of the organization.
Volunteers and their pets visit hospitals and children’s hospitals whether visiting patients in the intensive care units or during their chemotherapy treatments and they visit colleges and universities during finals week helping to calm the nerves of stressed-out students.
Visits also include public and private schools, nursing homes, senior centers, women shelters, mental health centers, children’s services, hospice, veterans’ programs and many library visits, Herz said.
Creature Comfort Pet Therapy, which services Essex, Morris, Passaic and Somerset counties, along with parts of Middlesex, Sussex, Union and Warren counties, celebrated 10 years in 2021.
“We started with 10 to 15 certified teams and roughly 27 visits in a week,” Herz said. “Now we have 400 certified teams, about 250 which are active, and make over 300 visits a month. Before the pandemic, we were making 27 visits in one day.”
In Middlesex County, teams have also visited Lynn Crest Elementary School in Colonia, Rutgers University in New Brunswick, the Edison Public Library, Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Edison and United Way in New Brunswick.
Over the years, the organization has teamed up with the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office, providing comfort to victims specifically children from sexual abuse and/or domestic violence cases.
The pets also provide therapy to the staff at the prosecutor’s office, Herz said.
The organization has teamed up with United Airlines for their United Paws program to provide holiday comfort on the concourse for anxious travelers.
More recently, the organization teamed up with Amazon to provide comfort for employees during their shifts.
Creature Comfort Pet Therapy was born after founders Joan Baer and Annie Murphy saw a need in pet therapy, both from pet owners wanting to get their pets certified and from facilities wanting animal visits, according to its website.
Herz said 99% of their therapy animals are dogs ranging in all sizes. Other animals include cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, a goat and a miniature horse.
Creature Comfort Pet Therapy works with each facility to help structure the visit to make it as effective and productive as possible. Certified therapy teams are able to choose from a variety of visits and staff will make visit recommendations based on their interests and the energy level of their therapy animal.
As the organization grew, the recognition of how important the benefits of pet therapy also grew. Interaction with a gentle, friendly animal has been shown to have significant benefits in physical and mental health, according to its website
“We rarely solicit,” Herz said, adding many of the organizations they have teamed up with have reached out to them for their services.
As a nonprofit, Creature Comfort Pet Therapy relies on volunteers, grants and donations. The organization has a small staff led by with Executive Director Mary Beth Cooney, who came to the organization in 2016 and a dedicated board.
In 2021, the organization raised over $80,000 with its furry scurry walk-a-thon.
Often, people think therapy dogs and service dogs are the same, Herz said.
Therapy and service dogs are both considered working dogs and wear vests. However, service dogs have full legal rights governed through the American with Disabilities Act.
Therapy animals go with their owner into partner sites to provide comfort and happiness to others. Unlike service animals, therapy animals do not have public access rights and are no different than regular pets outside of the facilities they are going to visit. Therapy animals do not qualify for housing exceptions as they are pets.
Service dogs also have a high level of specific training for a specific task from bomb and drug sniffing dogs to seeing eye and seizure dogs. While service dogs should not be approached, therapy dogs welcome all the pets and snuggles.
Herz said unfortunately not all dogs can become therapy dogs. Therapy dogs need a certain temperament as it relates to reacting to other dogs and animals as well as hearing different noises such as trains and helicopters, he said.
Creature Comfort Pet Therapy offers orientation for handlers and an evaluation test. Interested teams may attend a basic training class prior to the test.
A pet should be at least one year of age and have been living with the owner for at least six months. Creature Comfort does not have a maximum age restriction as long as the animal is comfortable and wanting to visit.
Books on therapy and service dogs can be found in Bruiser’s book collection at the Metuchen Public Library.
For more information about Creature Comfort Pet Therapy, visit www.ccpettherapy.org.