SHARE-A-PET TEAMS visit the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, a camp for children with serious illnesses.
SHARE-A-PET TEAMS visit the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, a camp for children with serious illnesses.
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"Dog training and teaching have a lot in common," said Joan Partyka of Sacred Heart parish in Lake George. "The big difference is, the dogs never talk back!"

Mrs. Partyka was a teacher in the Albany City School District for 35 years. Now, she volunteers for the therapy dog organization Share-a-Pet with her golden retriever-poodle mix, Louie.

She also gives presentations on Share-a-Pet and does trainings at Sacred Heart parish for future handlers, encouraging people to join the organization she has found so rewarding.

Mrs. Partyka and Louie visit local nursing homes every Tuesday, comforting elderly people who need some cheering up.

"Not once has anybody said to me, 'I really miss my children,' but hundreds of times have people said, 'I really really miss my dogs,'" the Albany native said.

Mrs. Partyka considers herself a "snowbird," spending winters in Florida and summers in her Lake George home. Her husband, Jim, has charge of the couple's other dog, Merlin the poodle.

Mrs. Partyka got started with therapy dog work when her mother was ill and in a nursing home. She would often bring her dog in to visit with her mother, attracting the attention of other residents. Although the dog didn't have any therapy dog certifications at the time, everyone enjoyed his company and sweet temperament.

When Mrs. Partyka's mother passed away, the nursing home kept asking her to go back, but it was too painful.

Mrs. Partyka then moved to Florida and met Sachin Mayi, who founded Share-a-Pet in 2003 with his yellow Labrador retriever, Tenzin. Mrs. Partyka was the first official member of the now non-profit organization.

Share-a-Pet now has handler-and-dog teams volunteering in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Florida. Many visit not just nursing homes, but schools, children's centers and hospitals. The group bills itself as "pet-assisted therapy."

Mrs. Partyka helps recruit members for Share-a-Pet, especially in the summers when she is home in New York, giving presentations at Sacred Heart for interested volunteers.

Rev. Thomas Berardi, a retired priest of the Albany Diocese who was once pastor of Sacred Heart parish, even joined the group with his dog, Chugach. Chugach has since passed away.

"There's a training that you have to go through with your dog," Father Berardi recalled. "Part of it is taking your dog to the nursing home to see how he reacts and behaves. Then, basically, if the dogs have a good instinct for it, they get to go back."

The dogs also have to pass a test, similar to the American Kennel Club's "Canine Good Citizen" test, performing basic behavioral commands without hesitation.

The training often has more to do with the owners than the dogs, Mrs. Partyka noted. She said that a lot of the information she covers when talking with handlers is about what to say to people and how to interact with people on visits to nursing homes and other facilities.

"Be a good listener," she advises. "Everyone wants to tell you something. They just want you to listen to them for a few minutes."

When going on a visit, Mrs. Partyka noted that the facility usually has control over what happens. For the most part, the handlers and dogs visit different rooms, meeting groups of people along the way.

However, "you can never, never, never interrupt a bingo game," Mrs. Partyka told The Evangelist, laughing about the competitive edge many seniors have when playing the game.

Father Berardi said it was amazing to see how the dogs worked instinctively, being gentle with people they met in the nursing homes. It's definitely an inborn skill for dogs, he said. Father Berardi's new dog, Wrangler, does not have the level of skills that Chugach had.

The priest noted that it was most rewarding to see the comfort that his collie/husky mix was able to bring to people who were struggling.

"He was very fluffy -- a very calm, laid-back dog," he said.

Mrs. Partyka likened the therapy dog work to a corporal work of mercy: caring for the sick.

Her visits to various nursing homes enrich her own faith, she said, and enhance her relationships with the people she meets. The retired teacher even became so close to a woman at one nursing home that she sat with the resident in her last moments of life.

"She was a fashion designer in Paris," Mrs. Partyka remembered. "It was back when there were no printers, so she did it all in pen and ink. Her room was full of sketches she had done for big designers."

The two had bonded over their love of black poodles. When the 95-year-old woman began to decline, she told Mrs. Partyka that she didn't want to die alone.

"When she was going, I stayed at the hospital until the end," Mrs. Partyka said.

One of the ladies Mrs. Partyka and Louie visit now is a 104-year-old who tells many stories -- especially one about Sept. 11, 2001. The woman was in New York City, sipping coffee with her sister, when they saw a plane fly right past the window and head into the Twin Towers.

The resident shared with Mrs. Partyka about witnessing that horror while patting Louie on the head.

Louie enjoys going to "work" on Tuesdays, Mrs. Partyka said. She also volunteers at a hospital on Thursdays, making jewelry with children who have cancer.

There, she said, everyone knows her name. But when she goes out with Louie, she's simply known as "the lady who brings Louie around."

That's fine with Mrs. Partyka. "I love what I do; it's that simple," she said. "It's just fun."

(For more information, go to www.shareapet.org.)