Penny Shultz with “Aspen.” Photo/Joel Wolff
By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Nearly 25 years ago, Joel Wolff and his wife, Penny Schultz, along with their dog, started volunteering as a therapy team. Now, the couple volunteer (and Wolff serves as president) with the Pets and People Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers “people therapy through pets.”
The foundation, started in 1985 and based in Acton, helps coordinate volunteer teams, human and dog (or on occasion, cat), for visits to residents of nursing homes, assisted living homes, special needs facilities, half-way houses, some children’s facilities, and some senior daycare centers and hospitals.
“We go to where people need comfort,” Wolff said. “It could be an assisted living facility to visit seniors. Sometimes we go to libraries for reading programs. Kids might feel uncomfortable reading in front of other kids or adults but not a dog. Dogs are not judgmental.”
Teams have also started visiting local high schools to help students during final exam periods. Sometimes it’s a more somber occasion when a loving dog is needed as a recent time when Wolff and his dog met with students at Acton-Boxborough High School to offer support after the loss of two of their fellow classmates who had recently passed away.
A Westborough couple, Tania and Bob Pano, brought their Golden Retriever, Cassie, and two Scottish Fold cats, Lynsey Lu and Mackenzie Connor, to comfort those who gathered at the finish line of the Boston Marathon after the tragic 2013 bombings.
Wolff knows that being the human member of the team often just means “just being there,” as the more popular member’s escort.
“Ninety percent of the time they know the dog’s name but not yours,” he laughed.
Not every dog is cut out to be a therapy dog, just as not every person is suited for the work. The foundation ensures that both the human and the dog are extensively vetted before they are certified.
“We have been in existence for 32 years and have never had a biting incident,” Wolff said. “I attribute that to our certification process.”
Wolff said that many times an older rescue dog might actually be a better candidate for a therapy dog as opposed to a younger puppy.
“The rescue dog will have already had some evaluation and possible problems noted,” he said.
The foundation is based in Acton but teams make visits from Eastern Massachusetts from Worcester east to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Falmouth north to the border with New Hampshire. There is no charge for the visits. A small fee is assessed for the testing of teams which helps pay for the organization’s expenses.
As their website states, “our budget comes entirely from donations, and our inspiration comes from the people whose faces light up when a dog, cat or other animal comes walks into a room to give unconditional love and attention to someone in need.”
Volunteers are also always needed, Wolff said, for help with administrative tasks or fundraising.
“If you believe in our mission, but don’t or can’t do therapy visits, there are still ways to help. We’d love to have you!” he said.