Meet Pender, the MossRehab Assistance Dog
Surrounded by the potentially distracting activity of people completing various therapy exercises in the first floor gym at MossRehab’s Elkins Park campus, a 2-year-old dog named Pender alertly listens to a few brief words of instruction from recreation therapist Liz Decina, gently grabs a fallen crutch with his teeth and raises it off the floor, handing it over to Decina.
That’s just one example of the kinds of tasks that Pender, a 68-pound Labrador, Golden Retriever mix with a sleek black coat, can do.
“He answers more than 44 commands,” says Decina. “The purpose of all of these commands is so that he can assist his human, or in this case lots of humans, in living the life that they enjoy independently, like turning lights on and off, picking up dropped items, assisting with mobility tasks. He can deliver something to somebody for you. He can open and close drawers and doors. He can bark on command if you need assistance for some reason. He can get up on objects so that you can interact with him better, and he can get under objects to relax out of the way of foot traffic or to help you get to something. He can be directed to stand on either side of you or back up and cross a threshold and walk backwards to provide safe ways to navigate environmental barriers. And then of course, there’s the improvement of depression, anxiety, emotionality, and social interaction piece.”
Half-dozing and seemingly sunbathing on the floor in MossRehab’s Alice and Herbert Sachs Conservatory, Pender seems like one very chill dog. And he is, says Decina. But he’s also excitable. “He’s the perfect combo,” she says.
Pender started out life being raised in a family that spent half their time in Florida, the other half in New Jersey. Within that family, his puppy raiser prepared Pender for his future as a much needed assistance dog.
The Assistance Dog Equivalent of Basic Training
“He was going to obedience classes, and going everywhere with his puppy raiser,” says Decina. “He went grocery shopping with her, went on planes with her, hung out with her girlfriends, when she sang in the church choir. All the things that she did, she took him with her. The purpose of that was to get him used to being in all different kinds of environments so that nothing startles him and he’s comfortable everywhere. He spent 18 months with her.”
Then came the assistance dog equivalent of basic training. Pender spent six months at the Canine Companions campus on Long Island, learning the commands and tasks that would be expected of him in his new life.
“Canine Companions is an amazing organization that runs completely on donations, fundraising events and because of its dedicated volunteers,” Decina says. “All of their puppy raisers are volunteers who prepare dogs who are wonderfully bred for their personalities. They are doing an amazing service preparing these dogs for their training and for their life as extremely important service animals for people with disabilities.”
Pender is a welcome addition to life around MossRehab, Einstein Healthcare Network’s renowned therapy branch.
At MossRehab, Pender is used to help patients achieve a wide variety of therapeutic goals.
Overall, Decina says, Pender creates a positive association with therapy and can encourage patients to participate in therapy for longer periods of time. In turn, that increases the benefits of the time they spend in therapy.
What Pender Can Do
“In physical therapy, Pender can assist patients in achieving endurance, ambulation, balance, and mobility goals. Patients can take Pender for a walk, play fetch with him, they can groom him while standing, and so on.”
“In occupational therapy, Pender can assist patients in planning and organizing a task, task persistence, appropriate tool use, and fine motor skill goals. Patients can participate in daily care of Pender, care routines that require following specific directions, grooming, and practice taking care of a pet for functional use when returning home to a pet, among other things.”
“In speech therapy, Pender can assist patients in functional and social communication, listening, memory, speech intelligibility, and verbal initiation goals. Patients can practice listening to and reading command words to then speak to Pender to complete a behavior, practice object naming, practice cause and effect relationships, and engage in conversations about Pender or their own pets, and more.”
In recreation therapy, Decina says, among other things, “Pender can give patients an outlet for expression and leisure pursuit. They can play with him, pet him, talk to him, hang out with him, inside, or outside in the garden of the Sachs Conservatory. We can utilize Pender to practice existing leisure skills or expand someone’s leisure repertoire to learn more about dogs. We could educate them about service dogs, for possible attainment in their lives for increased independence.”
For patients in the brain injury unit, Pender’s presence can help to improve a patient’s mood, agitation, or self-esteem—a boon during tough times.
In some respects, Pender is like any two-legged therapist. “Some of this stuff is new for him, especially on the brain injury unit,” says Decina. “He feels everyone’s emotions, and on the brain injury unit, there are a lot of emotions. He shoulders all of that, which makes him extremely receptive and capable of reading patients and knowing exactly how and when to interact, which is amazing to watch. He’s the perfect blend of gentle and nosy.”
‘He’s Just a Great Guy’
That said, Decina explains, all of those emotions can be taxing, so from time to time, he needs time to decompress. “I make sure he gets a nice little break after a tough treatment and has a fun little ‘shake off’ or play session. Then he gets back out there and does his thing. Over time, I’m sure he’ll get acclimated, and that will need to happen less and less.”
Pender is also a long overdue addition to Decina’s life.
Growing up, Decina had always wanted a dog, but life around her household was full of activity. “We didn’t have a dog because we were really busy,” says Decina. “We played a lot of sports.”
When Pender isn’t being an assistance dog, he’s just, well … Liz Decina’s dog. They’re pals for life. Pender is exactly the canine friend Decina has always wanted.
When they arrive home, Decina gives him the magic word that tells Pender his working day is over. The vest that identifies him as a working dog comes off, and then it’s just two friends hanging out.
“It’s amazing,” says Decina. “He’s a wonderful companion. He’s a great running buddy—somebody to walk through the city with, one of my favorite activities. He’s somebody to take care of. He’s just a great guy.”
Editor’s Note: The author of this story was the first recipient (2018) of the GNFP Digital Online Article Award, presented by the Dog Writers Association of America.
This award is for the best online article that highlights the human-canine bond in action.