Visit the Maryknoll community on Cristo Rey Drive in Los Altos on the right day of the month, and you’ll witness a spectacle of playing dogs and reminiscing priests.
The sanctuarylike acreage just across from Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve houses two dozen retired brothers and priests from the Catholic Foreign Mission Society. First established in 1911, it drew men who wanted to serve their faith by building social welfare programs in developing economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
The assembled pets and their human chaperones visit from Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services. The Bay Area group sends volunteer teams to visit people living in nursing homes, health facilities and shelters – the folks who aren’t able to keep pets themselves.
Los Altos resident Judy Brigham, who heads up the team that visits Maryknoll each month, explained that they practice pet therapy – the application, quite literally, of pets to the people who need some time with a loving animal. Take one snuggle from a shih tzu, and then return to your regular health regimen. Any animal that enjoys human companionship is welcome to join the group, but the Maryknoll posse was strictly canine, including a German shepherd, a greyhound and two shih tzus.
Priests hold their visitors (or get a full-body lean, from the larger dogs) and, with little prompting, share their stories of animal encounters past. From rabid dogs in the Philippines to mongoose-hunting island dogs in Hawaii, the fathers and brothers have seen their share of canines while serving around the world.
Brother Duane Crockett found himself enfolded in the lengthy curve of Liberty, a retired racing greyhound who melted against his legs. Crockett has lived at Mary- knoll for more than a decade, after serving around the world and, more recently, at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System.
“Our group has been in 32 countries in the world. We bring the word of God through assisting in projects to better their lives,” he said of the communities they’ve served in.
On a typical day now, the retired men see rabbits, wild turkeys, perhaps coyotes during the right season – but they lack the steady presence of loved pets.
Finding a canine calling in volunteer visits
On a visit this summer, everyone gathered in the shade underneath cedar trees in Maryknoll’s garden to scritch ruffs and watch the pups perform. Liberty demonstrated her speed on command, a streak of gray racing across the lawn at up to 40 mph.
When she isn’t at Maryknoll working the crowd, Liberty visits a school in Santa Clara where students practice their literacy by reading to her.
Bella, one of Brigham’s shih tzus, began life as show dog before retiring and finding her new, adoptive, home.
“She misses the ring,” Brigham said of Bella’s glory days. “Show dogs and greyhounds from the track get used to being handled from birth.”
Bella’s counterpart, Simba, “tolerates everything,” Brigham said, recounting a time when he stayed calm in the arms of a Parkinson’s patient whose grip became involuntarily rigid, pinning the dog in place.
Dogs interested in joining Furry Friends only need basic obedience training and undergo a screening process with their owners. A volunteer role-plays the use of a wheelchair and canes. Trainers watch for the pup’s reaction – for instance, when an exuberant young golden retriever jumped on a wheelchair’s (simulated) occupant, they decided the dog should head toward juvenile hall, where young people yearn for that kind of lively energy.
The group, a nonprofit, is always open to new members.
For more information, visit furryfriends.org.