Mike and Elaine Jones just love their golden retrievers.
Their dogs—Smartie Jones and Abbie Einstein, who sadly have gone on to the big kennel in the sky, and their newest 18-month-old Sunny Boy—have strutted their stuff in many obedience and agility competitions. But while their ability to heel on command earns them blue ribbons, Jones’ canine comrades have a greater mission in life: to heal, or to at least offer some modicum of comfort.
Jones’ certified therapy dogs have visited nursing homes, hospitals, dialysis centers like the Yorktown Artificial Kidney Center, libraries, group homes, and schools—just about any place folks are hurting and could use a furry head to scratch or soulful doggie eyes in which to gaze.
Their services were needed in Somers schools when a teacher’s aide died in a car accident and after a local teen was killed while riding his ATV last summer.
Back in 2012, Jones was part of a pack of compassionate souls and their four-legged friends who traveled to Connecticut in the wake of the horrific shootings of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Growing up, Mike Jones was an “Army brat” who lived in places as far-flung as Alaska and Japan and had all kinds of dogs and even admits to a cat or two.
Of Irish descent, he grew up “mostly” in Staten Island and Long Island, later settling in the Bronx as a married man.
He’s led many different lives; he’s been an air traffic controller and a computer consultant and the father of two—Michelle Quinn and Jeanine
McCarthy—also coaches girls’ basketball and volunteers in places such as group homes for autistic folks.
But a few years ago was asked to do something that pushed him way outside his comfort zone.
Jones and his tail-wagging sidekicks Smartie, Abbie and eventually Sunny Boy had been called on to help alleviate the stress felt by the talented musicians, dancers, and actors who perform at the Danbury Music Centre. Many of them were from the Newtown area and struggling with grief and anxiety.
Jones and the pups first came onboard during the center’s annual production of “The Nutcracker,” Tchaikovsky’s century-old ballet that’s a standard of the holiday season.
Once a patron was so enamored she got down on the floor during intermission—in her fancy evening gown no less—for a comforting cuddle with Sunny Boy, who, at 4 months old, was just “a little guy.”
“That kinda says it all. They didn’t have to say a word. I just had to see this to realize … my God …,” Jones recalled, getting a little choked up.
One day the ballet’s artistic director (who is, ironically, highly allergic to dog fur) asked Jones if he’d like to be “grandfather.”
When Jones replied he was already one—five times over—Arthur Fredric chortled and said: “I don’t think you understand.”
Before he knew it, he was suited up as the grandfather to young heroine Clara in “The Nutcracker” and doing an impressive jig.
Jones, who will be 71 in February, even catches the young dancers when they leap through the air into his arms.
Not bad for someone who was in dire need of healing himself not that long ago.
PAYING IT FORWARD
In 2006, Jones was recuperating after open heart surgery at Albert Einstein Hospital near his then-Bronx home.
Elaine knew her ailing hubby was pining for their dog Smartie so she made sure to walk her every day where he could see from his room. Now and then, a sympathetic nurse would “look the other way” allowing Jones to sneak outside—with his heart monitor attached—for a brief but poignant reunion.
“One of the things I realized that when you’re in the hospital, or otherwise confined, how much you miss your pets,” Jones said, adding: “It was traumatic.”
So he decided that when he got sprung, he would “pay it forward” by pursuing the therapy animal avenue “with Smartie and any dog after that.”
The Joneses got Abbie about a year later and named her after the hospital.
Jones had some wise counsel for folks who think their friendly pooch would make a perfect therapy dog and are wondering what it takes to get involved.
Obviously: commitment and training. But “more importantly, you have to really love what you’re doing,” he said.
Certification programs, such as Therapy Dogs International, differ in strictness so it’s important to find the right fit.
Doggie parents should take the long view and not fret too much about being perfect in the present.
After all, Jones said: “It’s not all the things that you do, it’s the journey you take with the dog and the joy that you allow your dog to give people.”
“As long as you’re doing that, you’re doing the right thing,” he said.
For information about certification, visit www.tdi-dog.org, the website for Therapy Dogs International.
To contract Jones directly, email him at email@example.com.