Ruth Jennings loves her dog Pom-Pom. The 10-year-old Pomeranian has rarely been out of his owner’s sight since she got him in March.
She doesn’t think Pom-Pom was very active with his former owners, but he’s blossomed in her small apartment off Mount Gallant Road.
“I taught him to love toys and go on long walks, and do dog things,” Jennings said. “Now he falls asleep on my shoulder while I’m watching TV.”
But as Jennings has battled a lung disease that left her dependent on an oxygen tank, she no longer can take Pom-Pom on the long walks they used to enjoy.
“I could do a short walk right outside, but I couldn’t go down the sidewalk and back without having to sit down,” she said. “And my neighbors would be alarmed to see me sitting down in the yard.”
But this past fall Jennings got a helping hand from Agape Senior, which provides her with home care, when they connected her with the Canine Forward program.
Canine Forward matches seniors who need help caring for their furry friends with volunteers who can walk their dogs for them, giving pooches playtime and exercise they may not otherwise receive. The program got started last year as the brainchild of Jonathan Marx, a Winthrop University sociology professor and dog-lover who wanted to give his students a creative way to volunteer.
“It’s hard to get college students engaged with seniors. They can be intimidated by their health problems,” Marx said. “But one way to get away from that is dog-walking.”
Marx took the idea to Agape, which started training volunteers to take on the challenge. Agape requires volunteers take a four-hour orientation seminar and makes sure they are up to date on shots before the agency introduces a potential dog-walker to a patient. Agape also helps walkers select a safe route and provides them with gloves and doggie bags to dispose of the walk’s results.
Canine Forward started as a program for college students, and it didn’t begin until after last summer break, with walks starting in the fall. But it now already has a mix of six student and adult walkers, with three more volunteers going through orientation.
Kayla Margin was one of the first volunteers walkers to sign up. The 20-year-old human nutrition major at Winthrop was paired in the fall with two miniature dachshunds named Precious and Jake, whom she would walk twice a week.
“I’ve always had a dog growing up,” Margin said. “I would love to keep a dog on-campus.”
Canine Forward not only provides elderly dog owners and their pets with a much-needed service, it also can give homebound seniors a chance for some social interaction.
“I know seniors who think of their pets like their children,” Marx said. “This gets their mind off their health issues and just gives them a chance to talk about their dog.”
Margin used to stay and talk with the couple who owns Precious and Jake after she finished the dogs’ walks.
“Their owner was very ill, so she couldn’t talk much, but her partner and I would talk a lot,” Margin said about the dachshunds’ owner, who has since passed away. “I think they looked forward to someone enjoying their dogs as much as they did.”
For the last two months, Jennings has had that feeling every time Janice Dulaney and her 11-year-old daughter, Ally Gregory, have come by to take Pom-Pom for his walks.
“The first time we took him out, he didn’t want to leave the immediate area. He just stood by the door wanting his mama,” Dulaney said. But once the dog warmed up to his new friends, “We just call and say, ‘Do you think he wants to go for a walk?’ ”
Jennings appreciates the help, although it’s not something she’s used to.
“I’ve always done everything myself. I’m very strong-minded and independent,” Jennings said. “I don’t know how to ask for help. The ladies that come out here think I’m gruff, but I’m not. I can just see what needs to get done, and I wonder why everybody else can’t.”
After he got over his initial nervousness, Pom-Pom began to enjoy having visitors himself.
“Now he thinks all my nurses and CNAs are coming here just for him,” she said.