Whatcom Cares: Marilyn Dunne and therapy dog Tommy bring joy to hospitals, schools, hospices

With her cuddly therapy dog, a golden retriever named Tommy, Pet Partners volunteer Marilyn Dunne helps ease the emotional pain of people suffering illness, grief or those who are just plain lonely.

Dunne and Tommy visit local schools, classrooms of children with special needs, nursing homes, women’s shelters, hospices and hospitals — pretty much anywhere that a loving dog can provide comfort to an anguished or anxious soul.

“The nonthreatening presence of a calm, attention-seeking animal ... it’s an immediate connection,” said Dunne, a social worker who’s been volunteering with Pet Partners for nearly 13 years and now helps train and evaluate similar teams of animals and their owners who go into local facilities.

“The presence of the dog — it’s really remarkable, the calming effect it has,” Dunne said.

Pet Partners, based in Bellevue, is the nation’s largest nonprofit for registering handlers of multiple species as volunteer teams providing animal-assisted interactions. They’re not service animals, which serve a different function, she said.

Dunne said therapy animals such as Tommy break down emotional barriers, lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, and have other positive physical effects. She said the patients or clients might be shy, in psychological distress, or withdrawn — but they invariably react with joy to Tommy.

“I introduce myself and that’s it,” she said. “It’s phenomenal, most of the dogs that we work with really know how to connect.”

Tommy, for his part, is a goofy lump of a dog who simply adores the attention, Dunne said.

“He is a big dim-witted lovable Buddha, close to comatose, yet oddly, he sincerely connects to each client,” Dunne said. “He has poor manners at home but when we slip on his vest he gets his game on. He prances into the room ready to work.”

Gaye Sawicki, another local Pet Partners volunteer and evaluator who’s worked with Dunne for several years, said Dunne and Tommy have as great sense of humor and “a real love for people with mental-health issues. She’s a real gentle spirit.”

Sawicki said Tommy has a manner in which he kind of “hugs” people.

“She’s a pretty sensitive person, pretty in tune to people in crisis,” Sawicki said. “Her dog is like that too. He just melts into people. They’re a real sensitive team.”

“Our favorite thing to do is go to Western during finals week and let the kids de-stress” by petting the dogs. “We’ve done quite a few things together.”

Dunne moved to Bellingham in 1976 to study at Western Washington University and remained in Bellingham, working in mental health programs. She now works part time on contract, and does volunteer work. She’s part of Bellingham High School’s crisis team, which provides assistance in the event of a school tragedy.

“I started (with Pet Partners) because of a death in my own life, I didn’t want to hang out with people so much,” Dunne said, saying she wanted to find a way to help ease others’ pain.

“We have so may incredible teams in this county, some doing very serious work,” Dunne said, adding that not all therapy animals are dogs. “We actually have therapy cats, llamas and bunny rabbits.”