2011-12-01 / News

Jamestown dog lends its therapeutic paws to seniors

Yogi, a 6-year-old Pembroke Welsh corgi, has spent the last year providing pet therapy to senior citizens. The dog’s owner, Wendy Shapiro, says that Yogi excels at comforting people. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF WENDY SHAPIRO Yogi, a 6-year-old Pembroke Welsh corgi, has spent the last year providing pet therapy to senior citizens. The dog’s owner, Wendy Shapiro, says that Yogi excels at comforting people. PHOTO COURTESY OF WENDY SHAPIRO BY MARGO SULLIVAN

Wendy Shapiro and her Pembroke Welsh corgi, Yogi, have spent the past year delivering pet therapy to senior citizens. Shapiro trained the 6-year-old purebred herself to meet the standards established by Therapy Dogs International based in Flanders, N.J.

She has trained show dogs for 11 years, starting with her first corgi, Casey, now 11 and retired from the ring.

“He was the third ranking dog in obedience in the U.S.,” she said.

Shapiro and Yogi visit four Middletown nursing homes – one a day from Monday through Thursday – and the certified pet therapy dog provides residents with a sympathetic ear and a gentle presence.

“He excels at comforting people,” Shapiro said. “He’s a very affectionate dog, very quiet and wonderful to pet. His ears feel like velvet.”

Shapiro credits her late mother, Amy Shapiro, for instilling her love for animals and commitment to community service. Her mother was a homemaker but held an undergraduate degree in zoology and was a geriatric nurse, with a master’s degree in nursing from Yale University, she said.

She and her father, a Yale Medical School trained physician, met at a campus party.

“We grew up with a great variety of pets,” she said, including a Scotch terrier and a Shetland sheepdog.

“My mother served as a great inspiration to me,” Shapiro said. Her mother volunteered for the Perkins Institute for the Blind. She learned braille, bought a braille machine and transcribed books for the students. This was in the days before audio books, she said.

Shapiro studied music at Wellesley College, and, in a way, that explains how Yogi got his name.

She and her husband were driving back from New York and to her chagrin he was listening to sports radio. She would have preferred to hear a concert, but she made the best of the situation by quizzing him about his sports opinions.

She asked who he rated the alltime best catcher. He said Yogi Berra, and ultimately, due to the dog’s great catching abilities, they agreed to name him Yogi.

Yogi’s favorite game is to play with a tennis ball, she said. “I call it bouncy ball, and he likes to catch it in mid-air.”

But the Yankee great is not Yogi’s only namesake – he’s also named after the cartoon character, Yogi Bear.

Yogi’s American Kennel Club name is Baymoor Annwyl Quillan, and the last two words in his name are Welsh meaning “beloved cub” because he looks a little like a bear cub, she said.

Yogi could not become a bestin show dog because he belongs to the “fluffy” variety of corgi, she said, and the long hair – the result of a recessive gene – is not the breed standard.

“It’s considered a major flaw,” she said, but Yogi is nonetheless a beautiful purebred and eligible for AKC obedience and agility competitions.

He has earned six AKC titles in obedience, she said. One wall in her home is filled with ribbons Yogi and her older corgi, Casey, have won.

She may show Casey again in a specialty show for veteran AKC champions over 7, she said, but otherwise, he’s being allowed to rest on his laurels.

Shapiro bought Casey from a local kennel only to discover later he was the product of a puppy mill. She was lucky that Casey was healthy, she said. Shapiro settled on the corgi after she decided she wanted to train dogs professionally.

“I was intrigued by the breed,” she said. Corgis were bred in Wales to herd sheep and cattle. “They’re very smart, versatile [and] active,” she said. She also liked their looks.

“They’re wonderful dogs,” she said. “They look happy and have these foxlike faces.”

They’re also built for hard work. “They’re sturdy,” she added, “not fragile like the toy dogs and not too big to be intimidating.”

Her first corgi, Casey of Caernarvon, became a success story for Shapiro. The red and white Pembroke Welsh corgi, who bears the name of a medieval castle in Wales, won five AKC titles.

“I was training him at the highest obedience level, which is utility,” she said.

Shapiro didn’t have any previous experience as a dog handler, but she went to school to learn.

“I literally woke up one morning and decided I would like to train a dog for the show ring,” she said. She bought Casey and started classes at The K-9 Connection in Warwick where she still goes three times a week.

Recently, when The K-9 Connection offered a pet therapy class, she and Yogi enrolled.

Cris Larson, a Therapy Dog International trainer and evaluator, put Yogi through his paces and certified him.

“He has a very sweet temperament,” Shapiro said. “He’ll lie on his back and stick all four feet up for a belly rub.” If a nursing home patient is in a wheelchair, Shapiro will place him on the chair. Sometimes, Yogi even sits in bed with seniors.

Yogi has now earned a pet therapy achievement certificate for making 50 nursing home visits, she said. He’s working on his next certificate, which will reflect 150 more visits.

Yogi regularly visits seniors at the John Clarke Retirement Center, Blenheim Newport, Grand Islander Center and Forest Farm Health Care. Shapiro also works with the Beacon Hospice in North Kingstown.

“I’ve had Alzheimer’s patients who won’t interact with staff at all,” she said, but they love Yogi.

The children struggling with reading also have found a sympathetic soul in Yogi. He performs pet therapy for disabled children at Newport Public Library, Shapiro said, as one of the Tail Waggin’ Tutors.

Shapiro found Yogi through the Mayflower Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club, which is the regional New England chapter of the national organization. He was bred in Florida and arrived at T.F. Green Airport on a Delta airlines flight, she said.

Shapiro picked him up in the cargo section. “It was love at first sight,” she said.

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