By Karen Zautyk
The other day, we had the pleasure, and honor, of meeting one of this town’s most selfless, and charming, and cherished, residents.
He greeted us with a handshake at the door of his home and made us feel welcome, but conversation was somewhat limited. Part of that was perhaps due to the fact that his first language was German, which I do not speak. But then, I also do not speak dog.
Our visit was with a yellow Labrador named Coby, who resides with (I won’t say “is owned by”) Diane Tilley and her husband, retired KFD Capt. Doug Tilley.
Coby is a therapy dog who every week visits, and brings joy to, patients at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville and students at Northwest Essex Community Healthcare Network Therapeutic School & Preschool, also in Belleville.
Unlike service dogs, which are paired with individuals who have disabilities, helping them cope with daily life, the job of a therapy dog “is to love, to be hugged, to be petted, and to bring smiles,” Diane explained. “We can make people happy one smile at a time.”
Therapy dogs are also used in reading programs, usually at libraries. “Dogs are not judgmental,” Diane noted. “A child who might have trouble reading can select a book and read it to the dog without having to worry about making mistakes. It boosts their confidence and increases their skills.”
Coby, who turns 4 on April 5, came into the Tilleys’ life when he was 9 months old. He born in Germany and was brought to the U.S. by a man who trains K-9 and militaryservice dogs. Coby was destined to be a bomb-sniffer.
But a mutual friend who knew the Tilleys were looking for a therapy dog arranged for the Lab to come to Kearny.
Coby has a German passport (really) and as a pup had been trained in German, which is the only language he understood when he moved in. “We couldn’t speak German,” Diane said. “But he’s smarter than us. So he had to learn English.”
Coby and Diane have been visiting Clara Maass for a year and the school for six months. “I have wanted to do this for a long time,” Diane said, and Coby turned out to be “just perfect for it.”
“He has the right temperament and the right demeanor,” she explained.
But you can’t just walk into a health-care facility and say you have a therapy dog, no matter how gentle and friendly the canine is. Both Coby and Diane had to be trained.
Diane signed up with Joana Watsky of Sit and Stay dog training (www.njsitnstay.com), who teaches a therapy-dog course in Nutley.
During the six-week program, Coby worked on his “obedience and personal skills” and got up close to wheelchairs and canes and walkers so he would be densensitized to those objects that might initially cause him apprehension. And Diane learned how to be the vigilant handler.
At the end of the course, Diane was tested and certified by Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs (www.golden-dogs.org), which is a licensed nonprofit authorized to issue certification.
At Clara Maass, where the health restrictions are tight and strictly obeyed, Coby visits patients in several units — oncology, behavioral, pediatrics, chemotheraphy, same-day surgery. His task? “To bring joy,” Diane said.
Coby’s second job came about through a chance encounter in a Belleville park between Diane and the Lab and some students and teachers from the Northwest Essex school. The first day he visited the school, “there were ‘Welcome, Coby’ signs on all the doors,” Diane said.
Many of the students are autistic, and some were initially afraid of the dog, but now “they’ve bonded,” Diane said.
In some of the classrooms he visits, he goes to every desk. In others, he’ll lie on the floor and the kids come up to him. Their interaction “varies from a tentative pat or a hug to lying on him like a pillow,” Diane said. Coby spends at least two hours at the school once a week.
Working with the children is “very gratifying,” Diane noted, but the weekly visits to the hospital can be “very sobering.”
“If you can touch their (the patients’) lives for a moment, make them forget, that’s a job well done,” she explained, noting that it’s Coby who does the work. “It’s all about him; I’m just his driver,” she said.
By the way, Coby has his own Facebook page and his own email account, so his fans can communicate with him. “But,” Diane explained, “I let them know that I have to do the typing because he can’t spell worth a damn.”