An almost instant connection had Sundance Goldenthal eating out of her new friend’s hands last week. Literally.
Sundance, a 9-year-old golden retriever, was spreading joy and cheer Thursday at Forum Pueblo Norte nursing home in Scottsdale. In turn, the dog who’s part of Pets on Wheels of Scottsdale got handfuls of Cheerios and a whole lot of attention from resident Ada Anderson.
When asked if she was happy, Sundance pushed her head under her questioner’s hand, looking for another stroke of her silky coat and, just maybe, more tasty treats.
“You’re so soft!” Anderson told Sundance. “It’s fun to see you here. It really makes me happy.”
That’s exactly what Neal Jennings, who started the program in 1990, likes to hear. He sends dog owners, such as 17-year-old Caroline Goldenthal and her mother, Elaine, to have their animals interact with people who might not have any other type of contact beyond the workers at care facilities and hospitals.
Caroline Goldenthal, a senior at Foothills Academy College Preparatory in Scottsdale, enjoys trotting out Sundance, who’s her mother’s dog. The girl’s own dog Herchel, a 6-year old black pug mix, also knows the drill quite well.
“The dogs get a lot more love and affection here than they do even at home,” said Caroline, whose love for animals includes working at a local PetsMart. “Dogs we bring here need to be able to say ‘love me’ to these people. They can’t be scared.
“Herchel used to not do as well around people. He was shy. Now, the car pulls up, he gets out, somebody yells ‘Herchel!’ and he’s right over there ready to greet them, make them smile and be a friend. We put a bandanna on him, he perks right up and it’s like ‘OK, I’m ready to go to work.’ ”
Caroline began visiting patients at Healthsouth Scottsdale Rehabilitation Hospital when she was 13 with her Doberman pinscher, Aero, who died in 2003. She continued the trips with Sundance and now makes at least one visit a week. She thinks the visits do a lot for patients, her and the dogs.
“Some people remember us from visit to visit and look forward to seeing Sundance or Herchel,” she said. “It’s something caregivers can’t do — dogs give patients the touch aspect and the love aspect. Pets give unconditional love. It’s great to see them interact with people. The patients are at ease with the dogs.”
Jennings said dogs and their owners are evaluated. Dogs must be gentle and able to work with older patients, many of whom suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
“This is a great thing for all of us,” Jennings said of his nonprofit organization. “To know I have over 100 people ready to go out with their dogs and visit people like this is very rewarding.”