“The Therapy Trio” shares a special kind of comfort
By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Westborough – It has been well documented the effects of therapy dogs on those needing comfort, whether they be children, elders, or victims of trauma. But as Westborough residents Tania and Bob Pano will tell you, although not as well known, cats can perform this type of work as well.
Once a week, the couple, along with Cassie, their 8-year-old Golden Retriever, and Lynsey Lu and MacKenzie Connor, two Scottish Fold cats, visit with elders who live in senior communities in Westborough and Worcester. The “Therapy Trio,” as the pets are known, also helped to provide comfort to those gathered near the finish of the Boston Marathon for eight straight weekends after the April 15 bombings.
It was about three-and-a-half years ago when Bob, a retired teacher, was volunteering as a dog walker at the Baypath Humane Society shelter in Hopkinton one day when he met Cassie, who had been turned in after her family could no longer take care of her. After a quick consultation with Tania, Cassie became a member of the Pano family.
Although Cassie was well-behaved, Tania decided to take her to Especially for Pets in Westborough for a bit more training. There she also learned from instructor Christine MacDonald about a pet-assisted therapy program, the Pets and People Foundation. Cassie soon passed the certification necessary to be a therapy dog.
MacKenzie is now 2-1/2 and Lynsey Lu is 13 months old. Both have been certified therapy cats since they were just a few months old. Although Scottish Fold cats are known for being similar in temperament to a Golden Retriever, Bob acknowledged that “cats really just get certified by having a good nature – they don's go through a program like dogs.”
It also helps to have someone like Tania, he added, who has a remarkable rapport with her cats, especially Lynsey Lu. Talking calmly and directly to her, Tania can get Lynsey Lu to perform such tricks as sitting, laying down, and offering a paw on command.
Tania also dresses the cats in cute outfits and wheels them around in a baby carriage when they go to their therapy appointments. Remarkably, the two cats stay in the carriage at all times until they are lifted out, even in a busy, hectic environment such as when they were in Boston meeting with those near the marathon finish line. But the sight of two beautiful cats riding in a carriage and a friendly Golden Retriever certainly does attract a lot of attention.
“We could not even walk down the street a block without being stopped,” Tania recalled.
Countless people were drawn to the trio, the Panos said, to pet them or share a quiet hug. Each and every time, the trio behaved perfectly.
“They knew what their job was,” Bob said. “They knew they were there to help.”
Tania recalled two especially poignant moments.
“I was a little nervous about saying Lynsey Lu's name because it is so close to Lingzi Lu, who died in the bombings,” she said. “So when one young Chinese woman came over, I told her what the cat's name was, but made sure to tell her that was her name before the bombings.”
The young woman did not say anything, but just held Lynsey Lu for a moment and then left.
“But then she came back two other times,” Tania said. “She was drawn to her on some level.”
Lynsey Lu also worked her special magic on a little girl who asked if she could hold the cat.
“The mother told Bob that it was the first time she had seen her daughter smile since the bombings,” Tania said.
As it turned out, another of the bombing victims, Krystle Campbell, had been the little girl's babysitter at one time.
“It was so gratifying being there,” Tania said. “We felt we able to make a difference for a lot of people.”
On alternate weeks, the Panos take the trio to visit elders at the Beaumont community in Worcester and the Salmon Health and Retirement complex in Westborough. There they visit with the residents or, as Bob said, “watch Cassie and the cats do their thing.”
“At home the cats will sit in my lap for a few minutes, but here they know they are at work,” he said. “They will just sit in a lap for as long as the person wants. And Cassie will just make her rounds.”
“So many [residents] have had to give up their pets and are missing them,” Tania said. “This lets them have a few minutes to share some love with one of ours.”
Watching the trio with the residents, one can see the joy and memories that are reawakened. Residents share stories of pets they have had, ask questions about the animals or just take a moment to make a quiet connection.
Bob reflected on what it has meant to be part of bringing happiness to so many.
“We have such a good time doing this but it's also a deeper, spiritual thing to give back and help others,” he said. “It's really what it's all about – being part of something much bigger than just us.”
“I never would have imagined at this stage of my life I would feel such an energy and purpose,” he added. “We are so blessed.”
For more information on Pets and People visit http://www.petsandpeoplefoundation.org
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