Monty, a silky, regal-looking English setter, enjoys cuddling on the couch with the boys in his family while they read. When the family goes out, he watches them leave from a low window, then races to another window to get a better view of the driveway to their Grand Island farmhouse.
But when Nicole Gerber buckles on the green nylon collar and asks, "Do you want to go see your friends?" Monty changes from a mellow family dog to an outgoing guy who's ready to spread the love to people in nursing homes and hospitals.
Monty wags his tail as he gently approaches people, a soft look in his deep brown eyes.
"I love dogs and I know how much they can make a person happy," says Gerber. "After I heard about therapy dogs and what they do, I thought, what a wonderful way to share your dog with other people, especially people who have a need to feel good. They can be in a nursing home where they can no longer have their own pets, or in a situation or setting where life itself can be overwhelming and maybe they just need a smile."
Monty has been a certified therapy dog since he was 2 and, with Gerber, pioneered the therapy dog visits at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where Gerber is now emergency and biosafety manager.
At home, Monty is canine king of the household Gerber shares with her fiance, Dave Reilly, and his sons, Josh, 11, and Nate, 9. The family recently adopted two other dogs, Jethro and Honey, from a southern shelter, and the pair look to Monty for tips on how to behave, the boys say.
"He has a lot of different facial expressions," says Josh. "He's like a person in a dog's body!"
Gerber had Monty certified through Therapy Dogs International by a local trainer, who tested his reactions to "unusual situations that a dog normally wouldn't encounter at home," says Gerber. For example, a therapy dog must accept people approaching him in groups, people with loud voices, moving erratically or using wheelchairs, canes or walkers.
After 10 years of therapy dog experience, Monty has a particular interest in walkers. His mellow approach doesn't hide his polite curiosity -- "he wants to go up and see if the little bag hanging off the side has treats in it," says Gerber, laughing. "It's a lot of fun to see all the smiles. Residents of the nursing home love to share stories about their dogs, so it allows them to reminisce in a good way."
Gerber and Monty had been visiting nursing homes for a few years, so when she started working at Roswell, "it just seemed a natural fit to bring therapy dogs to Roswell," she says. Four years after the program was given provisional approval and Monty entered Roswell as a clean, well-mannered ambassador, there are now about a dozen other therapy dog teams visiting. Their canine members include a basset hound, a tiny Papillon, golden retrievers and a springer spaniel.
The therapy dog teams "walk from the ground floor to the third floor in the outpatient areas and visiting areas, including the ICU waiting room," where the dog's effect is particularly visible, Gerber says. "You can see the tension on people's faces, and when the dog comes in, they say, 'A dog!' Monty goes around and greets all the people, and we hang out there, so they can talk and ask us questions and share stories while they are waiting."
Although for some people it's a surprise to see a dog in a hospital or nursing home, Gerber says the most common question she hears is, "How do you get your dog certified?"
"We've started a waiting list for therapy dogs, because we keep it low-key," says Gerber. "We want people asking, 'Hey, when's the next dog coming?' "
At Roswell, she says, Monty wears his photo ID like any other volunteer. "We always tell people he doesn't have swiped access," she says, "but he does get a discount in the cafeteria."