March 20 • 07:56 AM

A living legacy

Veteran's dog pictured on Veterans Day in 2009 '365 Dogs Page-A-Day' calendar

November 05, 2008
IMLAY CITY — Lewis Ayers didn't know it at the time but while he waged a battle against cancer he was creating a legacy that continues to touch thousands of lives.

To get through the treatments, Lew brought along his faithful four-legged companion Smokey. The young Australian shepherd mix didn't seem the least bit bothered by the bustle and clamor of busy technicians, doctors and patients in the hospital setting. That would turn out to be the Smokey's introduction into the world of therapy dogs and his new mission to bring comfort and joy to people when they need it most.

Lewis Ayers died in 2003, but through his daughter Terri Martin, his memory is honored with service to others thanks to his faithful, four-legged companion. And next Veterans Day, November 11, 2009, thousands of people will be reminded of Lew's legacy on the 2009 Dogs Page-A-Day Calendar featuring Smokey's picture and detailing his good works in Imlay City.

Ending brings new beginning

During Lew's cancer treatments Smokey became one of the crew. In fact, when he didn't bring the dog, people talked about it.

The page-a-day calendar featuring Imlay City’s own ‘Smokey’ the therapy dog trained and handled by Terri Martin. photo by Catherine Minolli.
"They just loved him up there," Terri says. "The doctors and the chemo techs just stepped over him and worked around him. And if Dad didn't bring the dog, they always asked about it."

Toward the end of Lew's life, a hospice nurse mentioned that she had therapy dogs, and maybe Smokey would be good for the job.

"She gave me a name and number to call and from then on I was hooked," Terri says.

After passing a Canine Good Citizen test, which included Smokey's reaction to basic commands, other dogs, people, crowds and socialization, Terri and Smokey embarked on a 12 week course at the First Presbyterian Church in Flint. He made it through with flying colors and has been working in therapeutic environments since 2005.

Terri now helps train new therapy dogs and their handlers, devoting an hour a week to classes. As volunteers, she and Smokey aren't compensated for their time—they are rewarded in other, more important ways, Terri says.

"My dad deserves most of the credit for Smokey's formal training for taking him along to chemo treatments," Terri says. "And I know he's just smiling down at us here right now. He was so proud of his dog."

Not your average dog

When he's not working, Smokey's a household pet for Terri and her husband Dean. But when he's wearing the Mid-Michigan Therapy Dogs vest, he knows he's on the job.

"It's time to work," Terri says when the vest is on. He doesn't get up on laps unless he's invited, he'll smile if I raise my hand at him like this," Terri says, lifting her forearm and fist. "He knows he's there because people need him."

Terri explains that therapy dogs differ from other working dogs because they're meant to be touched, cuddled and paid attention to. They must be at ease in all situations, patient, gentle and forgiving. A message on Smokey's vest welcomes people to pet him and he responds with tail wagging and smiles.

Therapy dogs are beneficial for both physical and mental rehabilitation, Terri explains, adding that she's seen the results time and again.

"Not only is it the physical therapy of touching the dog, bending over and reaching and the movement, there's the mental therapy of remembering the dog, and prompting memories of the dogs and animals they've had. It helps people remember."

He works regularly at the Pines of Lapeer assisted living facility, where residents can't wait to see him on his weekly visits.

"They save their cookies for him because they know he's coming on Monday," Terri says. "Some people might not remember a lot but they remember his name and that he's coming for a visit."

Smokey also works at hospice homes, grief camps, nursing homes and even funeral homes.

"Anywhere we know there's a need out there, therapy dogs will work," Terri says. "Some are with people as they pass away. Smokey was requested and he was with one lady in her final days. She passed away a few days later and we went to her funeral."

Unconditional love

Working with Smokey in these situations brings a sense of purpose and pride to Terri, in addition to honoring the memory of her father. She says the therapy dogs are so successful for one simple reason:

"Animals don't judge," Terri says. "They are only there to be loved and they know when we need them. They just do."

Along with Smokey, Terri's Jack Russell terrier 'Hunter' works as a therapy dog, though she's out of the loop right now.

"She's on maternity leave with three puppies," Terri grins.

Local living

Terri credits Kelly's Pet Grooming with Smokey's irresistible appearance— "Kelly makes him beautiful," Terri says.

Paradoxically, when Terri's not volunteering with Mid-Michigan Therapy Dogs, she works for her husband's business: Critter Control out of Imlay City. She laughs at the subtle irony.

Critter Control is an urban wildlife management company that removes problem animals.

"Bats, skunks, anything like that that's a problem," Terri says with a grin.

She's used to smiling about life's little twists—after all she's married to a man named Dean Martin.

"It just keeps getting better..." she laughs.

Terri is proud that Smokey and his Imlay City home are featured on the 2009 calendar, and hopes his life's work is appreciated on a very special day.

"It's perfect because my father was a Korean War veteran (Navy) and Smokey's pictured on Veteran's Day," Terri says. "He's an exceptional dog and he just needs to be recognized for his efforts."

For information about Mid-Michigan Therapy Dogs contact Terri Martin at 248-521-2930.

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