By the breeding standards of the American Kennel Club, Jake the Siberian husky doesn’t amount to anything resembling a show dog. He’s a little too tall, his head is too big and at 97 pounds, Jake is too heavy.
But height and weight can’t measure heart, and Jake has plenty of that. The 4-year-old dog has helped his friend, J.R. Cook, recover from a heart attack that nearly killed him four years ago. And when he’s not with Cook, he’s prowling the halls of nursing homes and hospitals in Oklahoma City working as a therapy dog.
Jake has his own business card with his name and photo that Cook hands out to those he visits. The card says “I care.” Cook decided Jake needed a way to fill his idle time after reading a story about therapy dogs visiting the Oklahoma City University law school.
“Jake is well-behaved, and I thought he might be able to make a difference,” Cook said. “I decided to go that route. And we also visited with a pet communicator who told me Jake had
told her he wanted to be a therapy dog. I don’t know if I believe that, but it has been very rewarding for both of us.”
Jake was trained as a therapy dog by A New Leash on Life.
The course helps prepare handlers and their dogs for things they might encounter while visiting a nursing home or hospital. Jake made about 100 visits last year.
‘Always gets a smile’
Julie Tudor, 46, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 17 and lives at Tuscany Village Nursing Center in Oklahoma City.
Tudor can no longer speak, and her vision has declined, but she still can hear and can mouth words.
She always has been a dog lover but was forced to give up hers after her health began to decline.
Jake hops up on a chair next to her bed and puts his head down next to her shoulder.
“She looks forward to that connection every week,” said Gay Tudor, Julie’s mother. “It’s very special for her. Jake always gets a smile.”
Cook and Jake spend about 15 minutes in the room with the family.
But the time is well spent. Boyd Tudor sees the light in his daughter’s eyes when her furry friend stops by.
The family gets by with the help of visits like Jake’s and a good sense of humor. One of Julie’s favorite expressions is “this isn’t my first rodeo.”
“We use humor as a way of making things better in a bad situation,” Boyd Tudor said.
“We work together as a family, and we just try to keep the best attitude we can. Jake brings a lot of enjoyment to Julie. I think the smile on her face tells the story.”
As Jake climbs down from his chair Cook takes his leash.
Julie mouths the words “I love Jake, and I love for him to visit.”
When Jake came into Cook’s life months after his heart attack he was so small Cook could hold him in one hand.
As Jake grew, so did their bond. Cook doesn’t call himself Jake’s owner. That word doesn’t begin to cover their relationship.
“The Creator is sharing Jake with me,” Cook said. “I don’t own him.”
Caring for a puppy while recovering might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it worked for Cook. Jake forced him to get his exercise by playing or taking him for a walk.
Cook has a stent in his heart and a defibrillator device to ensure his heart beats properly. The walks have helped his heart become stronger.
The companionship doesn’t hurt, either.
Cook spent 37 years as executive director of United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. and in retirement found he had plenty of time on his hands. Jake spends much of his time by Cook’s side.
“We get along pretty well,” Cook said in what was clearly an understatement.
In search of ice and popcorn
As Jake walks the halls of Tuscany Nursing Center, some residents are already out of their rooms, ready to greet him.
Jake loves ice cubes, and several residents give him one to munch on.
“Here comes the love of my life,” Karen Henderson says from her wheelchair as Jake
Henderson gives Jake a treat and pats him on his head.
Not all of Tuscany’s residents want to spend time with Jake. Another woman in a wheelchair politely declines his attention.
She said Jake is pretty, but his size makes her uncomfortable.
But more often than not, even chance encounters in the hallways bring grins and laughter.
“That’s the best part of it for me,” Cook said. “You see their reactions, and you know even if it’s in some small way, you’re making their life a little better.”
As Jake walks into Clarice Bruce’s room, she looks for the box of Milk Bones she keeps for him. Jake waits patiently for her to start handing out the pile of treats.
“Jake is so sweet. I just love him,” Bruce coos to Jake as he takes the treats from her hand.
A visit to Joan Mitchell’s room brings more or less the same
“He’s got the most beautiful blue eyes,” she said.
Mitchell’s daughter, Francine Frederick, tries to time her Friday visits with her mother with Jake’s visits to Tuscany. She has seen the effect Jake has had on her mom.
“I think even if he’s just making them forget their troubles and pain for just a little bit, it makes it worth it,” Frederick said. “He’s a special dog. I get excited seeing him myself.”
Need exceeds supply
New Leash on Life trains potential therapy dogs over a seven-week course. Dogs already must have basic obedience training before becoming therapy dogs. During training they are exposed to things they might encounter in a hospital, including wheelchairs.
“The classes are mostly for the handlers,” said Barbara Lewis, New Leash on Life director.
“We teach them what to do in various situations. For example, what to do when someone doesn’t want to be around dogs. We try to create situations like that so that when they make their visits, they are prepared.”
But the work is not for everyone or every dog.
“A lot of people want to do their work, but their dog is not appropriate,” Lewis said.
“It’s very difficult to turn them down. Their dog needs to be people-oriented and friendly. They should enjoy being petted and sitting down. Some dogs don’t like that. They are curious about their surroundings.”
The need for therapy dogs exceeds supply. New Leash was founded eight years ago and still struggles to keep up with demand.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how many requests that we get that we cannot fill because we don’t have enough volunteers,” she said.
“This is especially true with the school reading programs. Most of our volunteers work during the day, so it’s hard to find people for those. It’s very rewarding when it does work out, though.”