Shenandoah Valley Couple’s Canines Spread Joy Far and Wide

June 2018
Photos and cover photo by Lynn Peters

The sound of a locomotive comes from the kitchen, which causes Doug Peters to pop out of his living room chair. It’s his cellphone beckoning.

The ringtone is nothing out of the ordinary, but still a bit surprising. If you’re visiting Peters and his wife, Lynn, specifically to learn more about their dogs, and you then get an hour’s worth of pictures, stories, and even pet trading cards, you cannot help but assume that the phone would produce a canine-related sound.

“Mine’s a dog barking,” Lynn Peters chimes in, laughing.

Of course it is.

You can roll your eyes, but no sooner will you do that then will you find yourself chuckling, too. A dog-barking ringtone was invented for the likes of Lynn Peters, whose affinity for showing off her two golden retrievers, Skipper and Tucker, is only matched by her willingness to have other people benefit from their presence.

When her phone is not a topic of conversation, the Frederick County resident is putting smiles on faces young and old by making community visits through Pet Partners, a national nonprofit therapy-animal registry.

Lynn and Doug Peters pose with their golden retrievers, Skipper and Tucker. The canines are renowned for their therapy-dog work, and love to pose as various loveably entertaining costumed characters.

Lynn and Doug Peters pose with their golden retrievers, Skipper and Tucker. The canines are renowned for their therapy-dog work, and love to pose as various loveably entertaining costumed characters. Photos by and courtesy of Lynn Peters

“It makes me feel good to know that I am helping other people,” she says.

Fit for All Human Types

If you are a regular reader of Cooperative Living, Skipper and Tucker may have already touched you, even if you have never been within hundreds of miles of them. Lynn Peters, a member-owner of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, has a treasure trove of pictures of her dogs wearing various outfits that she regularly submits to the magazine’s Say Cheese column.

“Whatever I can find to dress them up. They have a whole wardrobe of costumes,” she says. “I started doing it for the grandkids and it just kind of grew. Once we got dogs, our grandkids didn’t want to pose anymore.”

There is one photo with Skipper wearing heart sunglasses for Valentine’s Day, another with Tucker as a sheriff, and then both of them as pilgrims to celebrate Thanksgiving, to name a few. They are all cute, of course, but the images carry much more significance because Peters will leave them with nursing home residents she visits or, when she meets elementary school students, she will pass out trading cards featuring the same decked-out Skipper and Tucker.

“It’s kind of her trademark. They even have stats on the back,” says Doug Peters, who adds he simply serves as “support” for his wife’s volunteer work.

Sure enough, the cards highlight each dog’s favorite toy, activity and treat, as well as their greatest accomplishments. Both dogs are fans of bananas and homemade pumpkin treats, by the way. Lynn Peters frequently takes her beloved pets to see children with special needs in area schools, responding to a group callout from officials for a therapy dog. Among the benefits, kids read to the dogs to improve their literacy skills, enjoying the opportunity to have a non-judgmental ear by their side.

“One of the greatest joys of being a child is being read to,” says Justin Raymond, principal at Apple Pie Ridge Elementary School in Frederick County, where Peters goes for reading nights. “Those dogs are just so calm and so loving with the children. It’s a really nice experience for the kids. And for the kids who don’t get that experience at home, it’s a pretty big deal.”

Peters is part of a group that visits Shenandoah University in Winchester for finals week and she is also a regular at two nursing homes in the Frederick County area. At The Village at Orchard Ridge, she goes twice a month to the assisted-living memory-care unit and to see residents receiving either short-term rehabilitation or long-term care.

“They love the dogs,” says Molly Edmonston, the facility’s connected living coordinator. “It helps with dementia and being able to see an emotional response from residents where other techniques don’t work as well. For short-term rehab, a lot of them are missing their animals and that companionship. It brings them a sense of home.”

The facility introduced pet therapy to its residents about four years ago. Skipper’s and Tucker’s pictures are in many of the residents’ rooms, demonstrating that the dogs have a lasting impact on those they meet.

“Residents are just in a happier mood. They see a dog and they just kind of light up,” Edmonston says.

Patient Approach

Doug and Lynn Peters are originally from Pittsburgh, but have lived in Frederick County for 30 years, watching three children graduate from high school in Virginia. Doug works at the Rust-Oleum distribution center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, while his wife is a former special-education teacher.

Both have had dogs in their families their entire lives, but handling and training therapy dogs had been a specific goal of Lynn’s for a number of years.

“I needed dogs with the right temperament,” she says.

Six years ago, she found one in Tucker, picking him up from a breeder in Fauquier County. At that point, Lynn had no training background, so she enrolled in puppy classes at Head of the Class Dog Training in Winchester.

“A good animal-therapy volunteer has to be able to read the animal and know when they are stressed out, ready to do more, or when they need a break. Lynn has invested the time in bonding with her dogs so they trust her and they can do the work as a true team,” says Lisa Marino, owner and head trainer at Head of the Class.

Once Lynn and Tucker passed locally, they advanced to take an online class for Pet Partners, an experience that also requires an in-person evaluation to determine, among other attributes, whether the animal can tolerate loud noises and a bombardment of hugs, as they would receive in a school setting.

Lynn is now among thousands of volunteers who fit in perfectly with Pet Partners. Based in Bellevue, Washington, the organization features a national network of therapy animals with more than 13,000 active teams making about 3 million visits each year, according to its website. Its mission is to “improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond,” and its program includes nine species of therapy animals, including miniature horses, llamas and cats.

Marino says it’s important to separate therapy dogs from service dogs. Therapy dogs are invited into facilities specifically to provide entertainment, spread good cheer, or offer educational support. Their reach has “exploded” through the years to include schools, courtrooms, funeral homes and dental offices, Marino says.

“It’s any place where stress can be overwhelming and the presence of a friendly animal can mitigate that … all just by petting a dog,” she notes.

Growing the Family

Three years after Lynn and Tucker joined Pet Partners, she grew her family by adding Skipper, from the same breeder in Fauquier County. After Skipper passed the tests for therapy work — for Pet Partners, recertification is required every two years for handlers and animals — they have since been a traveling trio, with most visits in the Shenandoah Valley.

“Each has their little area where one seems better than the other,” says Lynn.

They both excel at Operation Purple, a camp sponsored by the Military Families Association for children who have a parent who serves in the armed forces. The closest location to Lynn is Camp Sandy Cove, about 25 miles away in High View, West Virginia.

The summer program is free to kids in military families and derives its name from a “perfect mix of Army green, Coast Guard blue, Air Force blue, Marine Corps red, and Navy blue,” the organization’s website states.

Nationally, the camp has served nearly 60,000 children since it began in 2004.

“Some kids have had a hard time. They’ve moved a lot, or a parent is deployed,” says Lynn. “We usually sit in the shade somewhere, spend three days there, and the kids just sit around talking and playing with the dogs.”

It all sounds so simple, and perhaps it is, but the positive marks Skipper and Tucker leave on people even after the slightest bit of interaction can be life-altering.

 

One nursing home resident, for example, had to give away his golden retrievers when he and his wife moved into the facility. After his wife passed away, he had no relatives left.

When Peters’ dogs would visit, the man always seemed to find a happy place.

“That’s a very moving one for me,” Lynn says.

Doug Peters soaks it all in, from the heartwarming stories to the goofy pictures, a proud, behind-the-scenes counterpart. There’s no stopping the goodwill locomotive that is his wife and her cherished dogs.

Maybe his phone’s ring isn’t so out of place after all.

“It’s well proven,” he says, “the calming, relaxing effect petting a dog has on people.”

For more information on the human-animal bond, there are many resources and studies available at the Human Animal Bond Research Institute’s website at www.habri.org.

For more information on Pet Partners, visit www.petpartners.org. 