Sit. Roll Over. Heal.

IT'S A DOG'S LIFE: Bradshaw and her Labrador, Butter, help cheer the lives of mental patients with their weekly hospital visits.

January/February 1998

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Leo Lupia never ventured outside the veterans hospital. An introverted patient in his late 50s, he spoke only when spoken to, and then only in monosyllables. But one warm day last spring, that all changed. As Elinor "Kit" Bradshaw watched, her 10-year-old Labrador retriever, Butter, led Lupia out of the hospital and across the manicured lawns, where they began playing with a Frisbee. It had taken four months of regular weekly visits, but for Bradshaw the sight of Lupia and Butter playing together was worth the effort.

She and Butter have been volunteering at the Lyons Veterans Hospital in Lyons, N.J., for the last eight years -- although she admits that the patients only seem to have eyes for her canine partner. She takes it philosophically. "Patients remember Butter," she says chuckling. "They never remember me."

Bradshaw and Butter work through the Animal-Assisted Therapy program at St. Hubert's Giralda Animal Welfare Center in nearby Madison and are certified by the Delta Society's Pet Partners Program. Established in 1977, the Delta Society has almost 2,000 Pet Partners teams, operating in 45 states and five countries. In all, the program helps more than 350,000 people each year.

Before starting her visits with Butter eight years ago, Bradshaw, 68, had spent 20 years as a special education instructor in the West Morris Mendham High School, working with retarded and emotionally disturbed students. She has always been a dog lover and dates her interest in the interaction of humans and pets to reading actress Betty White's book Pet Love (William Morrow, 1983). This led her to the work of psychiatrist Boris Levinson, who had researched the positive effects of animals on depressed people. Simply stroking an animal, Bradshaw notes, can lower one's blood pressure.

Bradshaw herself had suffered bouts of clinical depression in her 30s and 50s that at times required hospitalization. She credits her recovery to the love and support of her family -- her husband, Richard, and two sons, Richard and Geoff -- but feels the pain of that experience has helped her empathize with the patients.

Bradshaw predicts that acceptance of Pet Partners will grow as scientific research and study supplant anecdotal evidence. For now, though, watching a patient like Lupia respond so completely speaks volumes to her. On that day last spring, when the yellow Lab leaped at Lupia's side, waiting for him to throw the Frisbee, Bradshaw witnessed one patient's world change. And, for those moments shared together, everyone felt lucky.


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