Fairfax Pets on Wheels Bring Canine Cheer to Local Seniors

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Monday, November 10, 2014 11:43 am EST


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While preparing a story about Surf Reston earlier this year, I met a paddleboarding dog named AnnieBelle. I was intrigued to learn that she is part of Fairfax Pets on Wheels, a volunteer program that brings dogs to visit local assisted living facilities. The relaxed disposition that keeps AnnieBelle steady on the paddleboard also makes her a calming and friendly visitor for seniors.

Fairfax Pets on Wheels (FPOW) is an all-volunteer organization sponsored by the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging. The goal of FPOW is to provide companionship and improved quality of life to Fairfax area residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities through regular pet visitation by trained volunteers and their approved pets. Currently, they provide visitation to residents in 13 facilities, including two in Reston. Their volunteers donated over 8,000 hours of pet visitation last year.

AnnieBelle and her canine friend, Abby, visited Reston Town Center’s Sunrise Senior Living recently. With the permission of Sunrise staff and residents, I joined them during their visit. It was delightful to see residents’ faces light up as the two dogs greeted them.

Abby and AnnieBelle are just two of the many pets that participate in the Fairfax Pets on Wheels program throughout the county. Most of the pet volunteers are dogs, but the program also has participating cats and rabbits. All pets undergo a careful screening process to ensure safety, health, and reliability. Pets who pass behavioral and health screenings must then complete training programs with their handler, including on-site training. Not all pets are good choices for this program; calm pets with easygoing and predictable dispositions are best suited for FPOW.

I could see why Abby and AnnieBelle were selected for the program. Not only are their personalities well suited for FPOW, but they also seem to enjoy their roles. AnnieBelle’s owner, Mary Portelly, says that her dog gets excited when she sees Mary pull out her FPOW volunteer badge. She knows what is coming next.

Participating pets have adorable collector cards to pass out to residents, created by photographer Robin Burkett of Paw Prints Photography. I got a kick out of reading their stats:

Age: 8
Weight: 22
Breed: Sheltie
Talent: Making folks smile
Coach: Kathi Baker

Age: 5
Weight: 80
Breed: St. Bernard mix
Talent: Toe kissing
Coach: Mary Portelly

During a typical visit, Abby and AnnieBelle are escorted by their “coaches” through the three floors of the Sunrise facility. They stop to greet residents in communal living areas, and give people opportunities to pet and cuddle with the dogs if desired. Just having the dogs in the room seems to be an interesting change of routine for many of the residents and staff.

Sunrise resident Mildred Love greeted the dogs enthusiastically. She has gotten to know both of them well through their regular visits over the years, and she treated them like visiting friends. She told me about the dog she once owned, and had me laughing when she described its breed as “sumi.” “Sumi?” I asked. I wasn’t familiar with that one. “The dog was sumi this, and sumi that,” she explained with a chuckle.

I also spoke with FPOW volunteers Kathi Baker, Madelynn Arnold, and Mary Portelly. They named several things that they enjoyed about the program, including their opportunities to converse with residents, and the flexible visitation hours for volunteers. They admitted, though, that their favorite part of FPOW is having a chance to share the dogs that they love so much. I imagine the dogs love the attention, too. And as Madelynn said, when you walk in a room with your dog, “Someone is always happy to see you.”

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