Reflecting on 2016 as it comes to a close hasn’t been easy. As advocates for dogs, and equally enthusiastic advocates for humankind, the year in review feels a whole lot like a whopping kick to Santa’s gift sack. Apologies for the indelicate expression, but the breed specific legislation passed in Montreal, the excessively hostile political climate here in the States, and the amount of suffering and displacement of so many around the globe has had an accumulative dimming effect on optimism.

It’s not too early to predict the coming calendar year will bring new and difficult challenges. Rather than submit to the cynicism, we’re aiming to inoculate ourselves against any misery 2017 threatens. Desmond Tutu once said, “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Focusing on the good stuff is powerful, and we can choose to empower kindness as an antidote for despair. Not only are there a good many proliferators of kindness out there, we are fortunate to have a forum on which to share.

Our collective New Year’s resolution here for Your Pit Bull and You is to do a lot more of that with our informally titled “Little bits of good” series: A steady flow of stories focusing on those who share a love of dogs and human beings and who have managed to operationalize that love in good practice. We wish to provide readers a hopeful tonic in this way; and may these stories also inspire us all to reach a little deeper in ourselves and make similar connections with those around us.   And so we are kicking off this series with the very lovely Mary Kretsch.

Mary and Toby

One only needs to meet Mary briefly to feel as though they’ve known her a lifetime. She exudes warmth through her effortless smile, and seems almost compelled to ask, “How can I help?” whenever she detects there might be need. It’s certainly no surprise she chose a career as an intensive care nurse, where that kind of empathy is most needed. It’s also no surprise that her compassion extends beyond human beings to all animals, especially dogs. Her volunteerism has supported multiple shelter, rescue, and welfare efforts in the Rochester, NY, area; and she and her wife, Stacie, have three wonderful adopted dogs of various breeds with which they share their home.

Mary has long wanted to merge these two worlds; but her dogs, while wonderful companions, weren’t quite the right fit for this work. Then she and Stacie adopted little Toby. Even as a young puppy, Toby’s easygoing, gentle temperament was notable; and Mary immediately began conditioning him to lots of social stimuli and anything he might find in a hospital setting, from wheelchairs to walkers. Toby was a whiz kid when it came to obedience training, as well, learning to wait at doors and greet people in a polite sit, and he nailed a down-stay in record time. Mary has been consistent in all of this training throughout this first year of his life, as they work toward therapy dog certification. A few months ago, an opportunity presented itself to them. A nursing home was interested in having him visit.

Just as the date was set on the calendar, Mary received an email from the coordinator explaining that she hadn’t realized Toby was a pit bull until their last exchange. Having only seen negative press on pit bulls, the woman was concerned and communicated that in her email: “I know these dogs have a bad reputation of biting. What else can you share with me about Toby?”

Mary was crestfallen and took a moment to think things through. She hadn’t expected this obstacle. She then did what comes naturally to her. She empathized with this woman. There is still, after all, a lot of sensational misinformation about pit bulls in the media, and Mary acknowledged that. With patience and logic, Mary provided her links to credible sources and put the focus on valid science, something that matters a great deal to her as a medical professional. She wrote of her family and the work she has done with pit bulls in the community, both through rescue and outreach; and then she went on to talk about Toby. How Pitty Love had taken his litter in when Toby was six weeks of age, and all of the work she has done with him to prepare him for this important task. She offered to arrange a private introduction to him before finalizing plans for a visit to the residents.

She added something else that spoke volumes about Mary’s character. She closed her note by saying that as eager as they are to get started, they also needed to ensure that Toby has safe and positive experiences. “We are as concerned with the safety and happiness of our dogs as we are with public safety.” Her thoughtful and compassionate approach resonated with the nursing home coordinator, and the rest is history. Consequently, the coordinator is now among Toby’s biggest fans.

Every Thursday, Mary and Toby make their rounds, and the residents say it’s the very best part of their week. They start off with a gentleman who has a weekly procedure scheduled during their visit on that day, and he reports that getting to see Toby beforehand makes that appointment considerably easier to deal with.

Patient has a holiday gift waiting for Toby at visit – a huge stuffed toy.

Many residents talk to Mary about the dogs they had to leave behind or those they had in years past, some with framed pictures of beloved former dogs in their rooms. Getting to spend that time with sweet Toby is a tender reminder for them, and the joy he brings to these patients is palpable. One woman saves bits of her meal for him on the days he visits.

There is another woman who has difficulty speaking now, and so she seldom attempts to at all. Mary reports, however, that when Toby gets up on her bed with her, “She just laughs and laughs and calls him baby,” and will talk to the others in the room when he’s there.

One of Mary’s favorite stops is to the woman who tells her to just leave Toby with her, saying, “He doesn’t really want to go home with you.” Mary reports that Toby looks so comfortable with this patient, she almost believes it. The nurses convey that even the most cantankerous patients light up when Toby comes, and some who have previously been too down to leave their rooms have started participating in group activities and communicating more, in general. The positive impact of a visit from Mary and Toby cannot be overstated.

Mary doesn’t hesitate when asked about her motivation to continue showing up each week: “I know how much joy he brings me. I just want to share him with people who might need a little extra joy in their lives.” She and Toby are doing what they can, right where they are, to make the world a little better for others, and that’s quite a bit of good. We thank them for their service to others and for the boost in morale they give us all. They are the first of many to be featured in this series, so stayed tuned for more bits of good to come!