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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 1, 2010

Tiny dog works major miracles

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — Asia, a Shih Tzu, didn’t react when an elderly woman grabbed his tail so hard she almost lifted him off the ground. He elicited tears from a woman who had not responded to anyone, or anything, in years. He convinced a woman with Downs syndrome to take a bath, after she told her house mother she didn’t want to.

Minnie Lee got Asia when he was just eight weeks old.

“He came into the house in one hand; he was just a little ball of fur,” Lee said. She’d had dogs all her life, but she had always kept Doberman pinschers. The last Doberman died just months before Lee was diagnosed with cancer.

“After being diagnosed, I just couldn’t handle big dogs anymore,” said Lee, who is in her 80s. “One day, a neighbor showed up and said it was the talk of the street that I needed a dog, and her dogs had just had one puppy. She asked if I wanted it.”

She lay awake in bed at night, wondering what she could name the puppy, but she couldn’t decide. She discovered that Shih Tzus were bred in Asia as lap dogs, so she settled on calling him Asia.

“I never thought I would like a small dog, but he just tugged at my heart,” Lee said. Lee’s neighbor, Marie Murray, suggested that Lee train Asia to be a therapy dog, because of his sweet personality.

Lee spent eight weeks taking Asia to training classes at a Wildwood Programs center. He learned obedience first, and then spent time allowing strangers to tug on his ears, tail, and paws, to make sure would be comfortable with that type of attention. Once he proved he could handle being touched, he learned to deal with sudden loud noises, and how to maneuver among wheelchairs.

Asia was officially certified as a therapy dog on March 1. He turned 6 on June 5. Lee spends time every week taking Asia to the Wildwood North Country Club, where six learning-disabled women live.

“They all just can’t wait for me to get in the house with Asia. They come out onto the porch and greet him and kiss him,” Lee said. She said most of the women want Asia to sit on the couch with them so they can pet him, but that the dog can also be helpful when one of them is reluctant to do something — like take medicine or change clothes.

“They like to have Asia come along upstairs with them and ‘help them’ and then when they are done, he just trots back down the stairs behind them,” she said.

Therapists with fur

Jude Lilly, the coordinator of Wildwood Programs pet-therapy program, said clinical studies have shown that pet therapy is not just beneficial to those with learning disabilities and the elderly — it’s beneficial to everyone. It relieves tension, lowers blood pressure, and can help to stimulate “reminiscing therapy.”

The pet therapy program was started at Wildwood 11 years ago, after the parents of a woman who used Wildwood services suggested it. A grant was created by Bart and Phoebe Connover. Lilly said that, over the past 11 years, about 45 dogs have passed through the pet-therapy training program.

Lee is by far her most diligent volunteer, said Lilly.

“She goes and visits every single week. She really has become like a grandmother to the girls; they absolutely love her,” Lilly said. Lilly has two consumers who are non-verbal, but they have both learned to say Lee’s name.

Lee also takes Asia to the Dutch Manor, a nursing home, and the Kingsway Arms Nursing Center. During Asia’s very first visit to one of the nursing homes, Lee recalled, he was walking down the corridor, which was lined with residents, and one woman reached out, grabbed him by the tail, and nearly lifted him off the ground.

“He was so funny; he didn’t nip or bite. He just twisted around and looked up at me like, ‘Ma, what’s going on?’” Lee said. Most times, seeing Asia interact with the elderly residents is heartwarming, she said.

Happy tales

She described a woman who was confined to bed, but wanted to visit with the dog, because she loved animals. Lee put Asia up on the bed with the woman, and he ran over, licked her face, and then snuggled up in the crook of her arm.

“I swear she instantly looked 20 years younger; she was just all smiles,” said Lee.

Another woman, whom Lee was told hadn’t talked, communicated, or responded to anyone or anything in several years, sat in a wheelchair with a stuffed cat on her lap. Lee noticed the woman was gesturing toward Asia with her hands, so she brought the dog over. Asia jumped up and put his front paws on the woman’s knees, the woman leaned forward and cupped his face, and tears started rolling down her face.

“I just stood there and watched, bawling myself. Obviously she was having some kind of reaction to the dog,” Lee said. 

Lee believes that Asia can sense things. She said her sister-in-law had become quite close to Asia before she developed Alzheimer’s disease, and went to live in an assisted nursing facility.

One day, Lee brought Asia to visit her sister-in-law, and, though he had never been in that nursing home before, he immediately trotted down the hallway and found the right room. He jumped up on the bed with Lee’s sister-in-law, and, though she had trouble remembering things, she opened her eyes wide and called out Asia’s name, Lee said.

“Things like that just give you a reason to live,” said Lee. “One of life’s pleasures is making other people happy.”

She plans on doing therapy with Asia as long as she is able.

Perfect companions

Asia may be a patient, loving therapy dog, but at home, he’s as playful as ever. He takes stuffed animals in his mouth and shakes them vigorously, growling. He has two “friends” that live on his street, Doyle the Shepherd mix, and Ming the Chow.

He gets so excited about playing with them that, when Lee says, “Is that Doyle?” he jumps up into a chair and peers out the window and down the street. Doyle, Ming, and Asia love to play chase in the park across the road.

He also likes to play with Lee’s 18-year-old cat, Mittens. Lee said that Asia hears Mittens scratching around in the litter box behind the bathroom door, and plants himself directly in front of the door, waiting for Mittens to come out.

When the cat emerges, Asia launches himself forward, bouncing off the cat, which inevitably triggers a game of chase. But, when Asia and Mittens are finished playing, they curl up and sleep together, Lee said.

Asia’s visits are not just limited to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Lee is busy herself, and Asia accompanies her to her weekly quilting sessions, and her Bible study, at the Carman Alliance Church.

“He has a foot fetish. In the summer, the quilting ladies will kick off their shoes, and, every once in a while, you’ll hear a giggle, because Asia is washing someone’s toes,” said Lee.

At home, though, Lee and Asia are the perfect companions.

“You just can’t imagine the company a dog provides,” said Lee. “If you’re feeling down, he will bring you right back up.”

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