“Dogs are not our whole life; but they make our lives whole!”
– Wildlife photographer, Roger Caras

We will have spent an estimated $50.84 billion during 2011 on our pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. That figure is up from $48.36 billion spent on those same critters the previous year.

We shell out that loot for things like diamond-studded collars, designer sweaters, vitamin-enhanced water and gourmet food. Oh yeah, then there are places like “Camp Bow Wow,” home-away-from-home (New Orleans’ version of this national chain is in the Irish Channel) where Fido – errr, sorry, make that “Fideux” – has “playtime” with up to 140 other dogs overseen by certified counselors. Fideux has a designated naptime and may be placed in “time out” if he’s naughty.

One program, St. Anna’s Nursing Home on Prytania Street, has begun bringing in small horses.

So what are our pooches and kitties (and other creatures) giving back to us other than a cold, wet nose – or shoulder in the case of the felines?

“Unconditional love is the big thing they give back to us,” says Claire Sommers, coordinator of the Visiting Pet Program (VPP).

Sommers’ program is comprised of an army of about 120 human members who have one or more dogs (or cats) specially trained and certified to become those givers of unconditional love to hospital patients, nursing home residents and children, adolescents and adults who are mentally or physically challenged (or both) all over the Greater New Orleans area.

“Everybody involved with the program is a volunteer,” Sommers says. “We do it because we love it and the real rewards come from watching and actually feeling the reaction of the people in wheelchairs and sick beds when they interact with the animals. Four to six teams of pets and their people will visit at once, going from room to room. They visit with every person who wants to see the pets. The overall visits last about an hour, but so much is accomplished in that hour. We like to say we bring love and leave smiles.”

    Take the case of one elderly resident at the John J. Hainkel, Jr. Home and Rehabilitation Center uptown.

    “We had a lady here who had been here for about three years and had not spoken a word,” says Robert Rodrigue, administrator of the facility.

“Actually, everybody thought she could not speak; maybe she wouldn’t speak for psychological reasons. Then one of the dogs went into her room.

She immediately bent down in her wheelchair and the dog jumped into her lap. She began a long and in-depth conversation with the dog about her ailments and many other things. She told us she loved the dog and that the dog was her baby. From that experience, we began to do therapy with her and get her out of her shell. It’s just an incredible event, but we see those types of things when our residents interact with the animals.”

“Hank,” Rodrigue’s pet toy poodle, caramel-colored and all of seven months old, wearing a superman costume replete with cape, bounces into the room. Hank hasn’t been trained, nor is he certified, to become a bona fide Visiting Pets pup, but that doesn’t stop him from spreading cheer around the building.

“He loves the patients here and they love him right back,” says Aimee Shuey, the business office manager of the Henry Clay Avenue facility. “He hangs out with me most days. Mr. Rodrigue takes him home in the evenings, and then he’s right back here the next morning. We have a few patients here who are quadriplegics. They can’t move at all. I’ll put Hank in bed with them and you can see the smiles and their faces light up. We have some patients who are loud and sometimes yell. Well, when they see Hank, they calm down. They want to pet him. As soon as he walks up to a door where there’s a patient, his tail starts wagging. He’s a natural for the Visiting Pet Program. We can’t wait until he’s old enough to be trained.”

“These pets just melt barriers,” says Betty Borne, who works for the massive Magnolia School and Group Homes program, housed in the White Hall Plantation building on River Road. “We have residents and students who may be withdrawn or maybe who never talk. They’re like that for years, then all of a sudden, they come into contact with one of the animals and then it happens. A new dimension is added to their lives. It’s something you never forget. One thing these animals have taught me is never to say ‘never.’”

“I can tell you how much joy these animals bring into the lives of the people they visit,” says Claire Sommers. “It’s a life-changing experience for them. It’s a life-changing experience for me also. It just means so much to me to be a part of bringing this joy to others. If I didn’t have to work for a living, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. There are so many of those moments that you just don’t forget.”

Sommers’ eyes well up with tears as she recalls one of those poignant moments.

“I had been visiting Covenant (Nursing) Home since 1999,” she says. “I brought my greyhound. There was a lady there who was 90 and blind.

Nevertheless, she fell in love with my dog. She’d pet him and I could just see the joy on her face. She had made a bond with my dog. Well, (Hurricane) Katrina came along and the residents were evacuated. About eight months after Katrina, my greyhound passed away. A year and a half later the residents moved back in. I had gotten another greyhound and looked forward to going back to visit the residents,” she continues. “The same lady was there. She had heard the dogs were coming and after all that time, she asked, ‘Is the lady with the greyhound coming?’ When I walked in, she petted the dog and the expression on her face changed. She knew this was not her old friend. ‘This is not the same dog,’ she said.

‘It’s a nice dog. But not the same.’ I cried and cried. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t help it.”

Meanwhile, 5,500 miles away, a couple sits in the lounge of the Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. They are waiting to board their flight back to New Orleans. An elderly man and his wife sit next to them in the beehive-busy airport. A giant wicker picnic basket sits on the elderly man’s lap.

The man’s right hand begins to tremble and the tremble soon turns into a full-blown tremor. It is an unmistakable seizure, the kind with which the man and his wife are all too familiar. In an instant, the head of a tiny dog pops out of the basket. The man begins to pet the dog and his tremors end, as if by magic.

“It is a prescription dog,” the man’s wife says in a halting eastern European accent as she anticipates the question. “The doctor wrote a prescription for our dog. They let us take it wherever we go. The dog stops my husband’s tremors immediately. All he has to do it pet it.”

So the next time you’re sitting there contemplating what that dog on the chair next to you is costing, just take a moment and remember all of the above.