Q & A with Sr. Carol Ann McLaughlin

Benedictine Sr. Carol Ann McLaughlin and Benedictine Sr. Rita Groner at the therapy dog booth for Paws in the Park fundraiser for Therapy Dogs United

Benedictine Srs. Carol Ann McLaughlin and Rita Groner take their 13-year-old miniature poodle, Rusty, to various places in Erie, Pennsylvania, to provide therapy. They visit nursing homes, schools, hospitals — wherever they are needed.

McLaughlin and Groner adopted Rusty from a friend who had fostered him. When they visited the then-4-year-old dog, he jumped right into their laps, McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin and Groner first learned about therapy dogs, which are trained to provide comfort to people who are stressed, ill or anxious, about seven years ago after they saw an article about the opening of Erie's branch of Therapy Dogs United. At the time, McLaughlin and Groner were working full-time in other ministries, but now that they are retired, the therapy visits have increased.

Rusty's temperament and love of people is why they chose to train him as a therapy dog. He's even helped them find healing.

GSR: How did you begin?

McLaughlin: We began with obedience classes. We had heard about therapy dogs, and a group of us, two other Benedictine sisters and two Benedictine Oblates who had dogs, we all got together and decided we would take all of the testing for therapy dogs. We have a branch right here in Erie, so we did the Canine Good Citizen test with our dogs, and then we did the therapy dog test.

Where does Rusty visit?

We visit St. Mary's Home East and West, the Sisters of St. Joseph infirmary, Mount St. Benedict's infirmary, Blasco Library. They bus in high-risk children from the projects, and [the kids] read to the dogs. Every Thursday night, we meet down at the therapy dog office, and it's open to the public. Anybody can come in if they want to come to read to the dogs or if they want to visit with the dogs.

We are just starting a new ministry with him at the Gallagher Center, which is a part of St. Mary's, in a unit for dementia and Alzheimer's. ... We are speaking to a group of caretakers who meet once a month at the Gallagher Center, and they would like to know what the benefits are of therapy dogs with people who have dementia.

So how does it help people with dementia?

From what we see when we go into some of the other Alzheimer's units, people can just be sitting there, either sleeping or they're just not with it. As soon as that dog walks in, you can see people coming to life with big smiles on their faces. They'll sit there and clap their hands. When we put the dog in their laps, they put their head right down to his head and they'll hug him.

People who have not talked will talk to the dog. We see that so many times, and the nurses will say, 'I can't believe they're talking.' When that dog is in their lap, they become a whole different person. People who are agitated seem to calm right down. It's amazing to see what the dog brings out in them.

Edinboro University students with Rusty at a freshman orientation

Has Rusty helped you?

Definitely. In 2010, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and when I came home from the hospital, he never left my side, no matter where I went. Even when I went to the bathroom, he would follow me, and when I would come back out, he would sit with me on the chair or wherever I was.

He makes us more accepting of everybody. The dog never judges whose lap he sits in or who pets him. He has brought so much of that out in us that people that maybe we might have bypassed along the way, now we are much more aware of everybody around us and what they need. It really brings out the best.

Do you tend to work with young people or older people?

We really do both. We do from the elderly to the children. We do that at the public library when they bus in the children from the projects. Many of them have problems, the dog just helps them. They sit and read to the dog. The kids that are petrified of the dog learn to sit with him and read to the dog.

What did you have to do to prepare Rusty?

We had to do the obedience classes, the Canine Good Citizen and the therapy dog test. The Canine Good Citizen test is pretty much the obedience test. For the therapy dog test, they have to able to be around walkers, wheelchairs, buzzers going off, people grabbing at them. They have to be able to not act afraid. There are times when he's in somebody's lap and they are squeezing at him and he does not move.

Are you still with Therapy Dogs United?

Yes. We have over 200 dogs in the program. They are initiating a couple of new programs. One is taking dogs into the court where there are children. I don't know whether we're going to get into that because I don't want to give up any of my other visits that we do for that because you have to be on call. They're even taking them into funeral homes. That I would love to do, but they're not doing it here in Erie, Pennsylvania. But there are places that are permitting dogs into the funeral homes.

How has your ministry grown?

We keep adding visits. We also do the colleges: Gannon University in Erie and Edinboro College in Edinboro. We do de-stresser days for students to visit the dogs before they have their tests, or freshman who are homesick. When we first started, we probably did three places a week. Now, we are out almost every single day of the week.

We do evenings. They'll have what they call 'dog days of summer' at St. Mary's on the west side, and the residents are allowed to have their dogs come in. We bring our therapy dogs, and they interact with the residents.

Is there a religious aspect?

We are a monastic community. The compassion that we see [in] a dog makes us, when we have to encounter someone, think, 'Are we treating this person as maybe Rusty would treat this person or do we ignore the person — which Rusty doesn't do?' I think it makes our faith stronger when we know we are helping people who really and truly need to be helped.

St. Joseph Sr. Joachim Onuffer and Rusty

[Elizabeth A. Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is eelliott@ncronline.org.]