Friendly furry greeter extends welcome at Sacred Heart Church, Rock Island
ROCK ISLAND — Except for the fluffy tail that wags itself out from under the pew from time to time, you would never know that Bailey was at Mass at Sacred Heart Church. Content to lay quietly on the floor next to handler Sharon Cramer, the large white Labradoodle makes her presence known in other ways.
Acting as a team, Bailey and Cramer are among the first friendly faces parishioners see when they arrive for the 9 a.m. Mass on Sunday mornings. As the final chords of the closing song fade away, they head back outside, where Bailey gets a few more hugs and Cramer gets the satisfaction of knowing that they have made a difference in lives young and old.
“They’ve adopted her. It’s like ‘Hi, Bailey!’ ‘Goodbye, Bailey!’ Not ‘Hi, Sharon,’” Cramer said, laughing. “This happens wherever we go.”
And they go everywhere together: the bank, the hardware store, the doctor’s office, the beauty shop. Everyone seems to know them and welcome their visits.
Bailey’s temperament makes her popular, but it’s her training as a therapy dog that makes her vital as a greeter at Sacred Heart and frequent visitor at area hospitals, senior centers, schools and even St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island. Now 2 ½, she has been a UnityPoint Health-Trinity Caring Canine since she was 1 and recently logged 100 facility visits.
Cramer said this milestone came with a new title from the American Kennel Club: Therapy Dog Advanced.
“Not many dogs have this title. It’s a rare thing,” Cramer explained. “Say she visits 20 patients per visit — that’s 2,000 patients in one year. That’s what she did and that’s phenomenal.”
A TEAM EFFORT
Accompanying them on these visits are Cramer’s best friend, Peggy Powell of St. Ambrose Parish in Milan, and her therapy dog, a Miniature Schnauzer named Max.
“I book the calendar a month ahead of time. Of course, the dogs are great friends, too,” Cramer said, noting that Max does tricks. “I call it the dog-and-pony show.”
There is an important distinction between therapy dogs and service dogs, she explained.
“A service dog is dedicated to its owner. People aren’t supposed to touch the service dog or pet it,” Cramer told The Catholic Post. “A therapy dog is dedicated to its community. People are supposed to touch it and love it and it’s supposed to love them back. It’s reciprocal.”
Bailey’s training started the day she came home as a furry 20-pound puppy. In addition to receiving obedience training, she had to be certified by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. That involved three visits to facilities chosen by the person judging them for certification.
“At Trinity, to become part of the program, they interview not only the dog, but you,” Cramer said. “It’s a team. They want someone becoming a Caring Canine team if the human half couldn’t do it.”
Cramer said they choose to visit the people being treated for cancer, in part, because it’s the most difficult assignment. They’ve been doing it for seven years and she said sometimes she doesn’t think she can go back.
“But we’re needed there,” she said. “You witness the comfort. . . . It matters.”
Bailey is highly intuitive, according to Cramer, who said her companion seems to know if there’s a problem and is very gentle and open to the people she meets. Sometimes Bailey’s presence will trigger memories; at other times, she helps people process their emotions in a loving, nonjudgmental way.
“I’ve never seen her meet a stranger,” Powell said of Bailey, whom she named.
Cramer showed dogs in obedience trials for 15 years and was known as the “Schnauzer Woman” because she had Miniature and Standard Schnauzers. When she wasn’t showing dogs on the weekends, she was the director of the physical plant at Augustana College.
During a serious illness, Cramer’s friends helped to take care of her dogs. She retired unexpectedly and eventually recovered, deciding to train therapy dogs as a way of giving back.
Active in Rock Island parishes, she has served as a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and taken Communion to those who are sick. Her ministry with Bailey was blessed by Father Anthony Co, pastor at Sacred Heart and St. Mary, in September.
“I myself have a learning disability and realize that some people need help in different ways. Having a certified service dog or therapy dog is part of that and it’s relatively new for people,” Father Co told The Post.
People are different and need different tools to help them, he said.
“I think this is part of celebrating that everyone is welcome here,” Father Co said. “So we’re happy to have Bailey.”