Alex Geli

She loves car rides and letting the wind blow through her hair; she enjoys taking in nature and running along the trails at Mt. Gretna and Tucquan Glen; but when it’s time to relax, nothing’s better than a long nap—or a good back rub, for that matter.

Meet Emma, a 6-year-old, 35-pound miniature golden-doodle owned by the Andersons; John, the president of Millersville, and his wife, Vivien; and, one of the most recent additions to the therapy dogs team KPETS, or Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Service, provides volunteer therapy dogs and handlers to come by retirement homes, schools, hospitals, hospices, courts—among others—to help comfort, encourage and rehabilitate those in need, whatever the age. Since its inception in 2003, the organization has grown from only a handful of volunteer “teams,” as they’re called, to more than 350.

Meet Emma, the latest addition to the Millersville community and the KPETS team (Alex Geli/Snapper)

KPETS founder Karen Gerth explained that, prior to founding the organization, she was at a point in her life where she felt it was time to give back. She attempted various paths, such as becoming a Big Sister, but none seemed to really sink in. “Finally, when I discovered pet therapy, I was like, ‘Ah, this is why God put me here,’” Gerth recalled. “It took me half a century but I finally figured it out: sharing my dog and helping others share their dogs.”

Starting with some acquaintances from her church, Gerth founded KPETS with her own dog, Sammy. The dogs would visit those of all ages one to four times per month. In 2006, the number of teams was at 45. Now, nine years later, KPETS has multiplied nearly eightfold. “It’s a good problem to have,” Gerth said. “We’re in demand.” Mrs. Anderson was clued in on KPETS through word of mouth. She had been interested in certifying Emma while they lived in New York, previous to Millersville, but never quite got the opportunity. With a little nudge from her peers, the Andersons decided to go for it. “We’ve always had groups of students at the house,” Mrs. Anderson, Emma’s handler, said. “Those folks encouraged me to find someone and, luckily, here in Lancaster, it was made very easy for me by the folks at KPETS.” Now, she may soon be visiting a nursing home near you. “I’ve yet to pick a local nursing home that I really want,” Mrs. Anderson said. “I’m really looking for someplace Emma and I can call home.”

There, Emma would visit with the residents about once a week for at most an hour each visit, per KPETS recommendations. “She’s very calm with adults,” Mrs. Anderson said. “They can pet her and rub her. [She’ll] stand next to whoever is petting [her] as long as they keep moving their fingers.” Ever since Emma was eight weeks old, Mrs. Anderson knew there was something special about her. From researching how to choose the best puppy out of the litter and eventually riding home with the “little stuffed animal” in her lap to training her basic obedience commands such as sit, stay, shake, speak, leave it, roll over and play dead, Mrs. Anderson said she always had that easygoing demeanor.

Ever since Emma was about eight weeks old, Vivien knew there something special about this pup (Alex Geli/Snapper).

At first, the Andersons would come home to a “surprise” now and then: chewed up shoes, ripped clothing and “several pairs of glasses, of all things,” she said. “But it didn’t last too long. Soon enough, she grew out of it.” After enrolling Emma in obedience classes and a relay-type activity called fly-ball, they noticed how well she listened and performed.

Once they made the move to Millersville, Emma would run alongside the president as he biked to his office, “keeping clear of the swans, which are bigger than she is,” the first lady jeered. Emma can stay with President Anderson for hours in his office, making friends with the secretaries and memorizing which drawer her treats are hidden. When the Andersons travel out of town, Vivien’s mother, who moved from New York to Millersville to be closer to family, usually dog sits. At 85 years old, she is still able to play catch with Emma, garden with her alongside and take her for walks. Emma’s calm nature was, therefore, put on display even further, nudging Mrs. Anderson ever-so-closer to using their dog’s soothing temperament for something greater.

“It’s personal as I watch my mother age, and I also think Emma really relates to people of that generation,” she said. “She’s just very quiet and gentle. She’ll stay by the side of someone with a wheelchair as long as they would like them to … she’s very patient, which is a good attribute to have in a therapy dog.”

First, Emma helped Mrs. Anderson’s empty nest syndrome, she joked, as they picked up 8-week-old Emma after both of their daughters had moved out; now, she is helping Mrs. Anderson’s mother live an active lifestyle; next up, now having passed the examinations to become certified with KPETS, she will be assisting the folks at the nursing home. “It’s a really good feeling,” she said. “I know that my mother loves having her come over and see her … To be able to share that pleasure with other folks is a really nice feeling.”

That feeling is all-too-familiar to a husband-and-wife KPETS team, Gregg and Peggy Maberry, owners and handlers of two Australian labradoodles, Calvin and Hobbes. Peggy Maberry, a former schoolteacher, certified Calvin in 2012 after retiring because of complications from breast cancer. Although defeating the cancer, “there was no way I could [teach] and be healthy at the same time,” she said. So she looked for another way to work in the setting which she’s grown to love. Now, she visits an elementary school in the Central Manor school district most Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

Hobbes, certified with Gregg Maberry in 2014, also visits the school Tuesdays and Thursdays, but in the afternoon. Teachers can sign up for half-hour increments for Calvin or Hobbes to come down, let the students pet them and even read to them. “Kids, two at a time, read books to them,” Mr. Maberry said. “When there’s a dog there, they’re not as self-conscious about what they’re doing and it’s easier for them to read.” With autistic children, Calvin and Hobbes work with their motor skills by letting the kids play fetch with them, brush them and take them around, say, a car door holding on to their leash. After students have a breakdown of any sort, the dogs are called to calm them down and comfort them. “Dogs just tend to bring kinda the stress level down,” Mr. Maberry said. “And the kids are sitting there. We talk to them about their dogs and family, vacations … it just is an environment where the kids can relax and kind of just be themselves.”

“Dogs just tend to bring the stress level down”, stated Greg Maberry, member of the KPETS team (Alex Geli/Snapper).

Because of her background in teaching, Mrs. Maberry is often asked to include a mini lesson along with the therapeutic effect of the dogs. She explained a circumstance where none of the second graders wanted to play with their autistic classmate, and the child started to get bullied. To nip the issue in the bud, Mrs. Maberry came in with Calvin—black and laid back—and Hobbes—black and white with more personality—and asked which dog they would rather play with. Some raised their hands for Calvin, some for Hobbes. “What if I told you you never could play with Calvy because [he’s] different?” she asked them. She received groans from the class and responded with another question, connecting the parallel stories: “Why wouldn’t you want to play with [him] again?”

The Maberrys use opportunities like those to touch the lives of young people throughout Lancaster, including at Millersville University, where they can be found in the Student Memorial Center (SMC) around the midterms and finals period.

The Maberry’s and other members of KPETS use special opportunities to touch the lives of those in Lancaster County (Alex Geli/Snapper).

They also came to the SMC following the death of Millersville freshman Karlie Hall on campus, which happened to be the first week after Emma had been certified as a therapy dog.

The Andersons took Emma along to Bard Hall to comfort Millersville students impacted by the loss after Hall’s candlelight vigil. “It’s our little way of giving back to the community,” Mrs. Anderson said. “To make someone’s life a little brighter.”