Chloe, a 6-year-old golden retriever, does more volunteer work than many people. She and her owner, Diane Morse, comfort patients and residents at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Absolut Care of Orchard Park. They are an official team in a national group that provides animal interaction and comfort after crises and disasters. They also make frequent visits to summer camps for children who are bereaved, suffering from cancer or whose parents are deployed with the military.
Chloe and Morse also visit a Hamburg elementary school, where children read to Chloe. With Chloe at her side, Morse staffed an informational booth at National Night Out and did a presentation at Harkness Career Center in Cheektowaga.
Chloe is also a blood donor at Orchard Park Veterinary Medical Center, which maintains a canine blood bank.
"We have a busy social calendar, but it's very rewarding," says Morse, who lives in Orchard Park with her husband, Jim.
On a recent visit to Roswell, Morse and Chloe encountered Stella Usiak, 8, of Tonawanda,
who is being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Stella petted Chloe, then hugged her, then buried her face in the soft fur on the back of Chloe's neck.
"Diane and Chloe are exceptional in their volunteer activities," says Nancy Klass, the licensed veterinary technician at Orchard Park Veterinary Medical Center who oversees the blood donor program. "They are both very special."
The Morses' older dog, Buffy, a 10-year-old golden retriever, was the first in the family to give blood. "I saw a sign at the vet's office about the blood donation program and asked about it," says Morse. Buffy was tested and found to be free of disease, so she started donating in August 2004 and continued until December, when she was retired from the program due to her age.
Chloe and Buffy came from the same breeder in Darien Center and are related— Buffy's brother is Chloe's father—and they have the same blood type.
In return for donating, which takes about 30 minutes, owners receive a few services: a 20-pound bag of dog food and a guarantee that their dog will receive free blood if it is ever needed. "I didn't do it for that reason, though. I do it just to help out," Morse says.
Some dogs are not suitable donors because of health issues or because they become stressed by even visiting a veterinarian. But, says Morse, "My dogs seem to be fine. They get up on the table and lay down. Buffy is a little more hyper than Chloe, but neither of them minds it."
Klass says that Chloe, who donates every eight weeks, "is very calm and cooperative while donating" and "is a sweet, loving dog."
Klass says of Morse, "I really appreciate her dedication and loyalty to the program. Diane and the rest of our donor owners feel very strongly about helping dogs in need."
The Orchard Park program has about 50 donors, including some who donate twice a year, and it is the only one Klass knows of in Western New York.
Chloe's mellow nature also makes her a perfect fit for the school reading program, says Morse. She either sits in a chair and holds Chloe's leash or joins Chloe and the reading child on the floor as the youngster reads aloud. Studies have shown that children feel more confident and less self-conscious in reading to a relaxed dog rather than a person and learn to enjoy reading more. "Kids open up and read better to an animal because they are nonjudgmental," says Morse.
And after the reading session ends comes the reward, for child and dog: "The children get to pet her," says Morse.
The volunteer work was not intentional — Jim and Diane Morse purchased Buffy, and later Chloe, strictly as pets. "I used to work full time," says Diane Morse, "but my job was eliminated in January of 2003. I was fortunate enough that my husband could support us, so I started volunteering."
When she heard about the pet therapy program, in which well-trained, friendly dogs visit hospitals and nursing homes to cheer patients, visitors and even staff, "I thought Chloe had such a good nature for it," she said.
Although Chloe had been easily trained as a pup, she needed specialized training to volunteer. Chloe had to pass both a canine good citizen test and a certification course for therapy dogs. Those sessions ensured that Chloe not only approached people calmly and obeyed every command, but was not bothered by unusual sights, sounds and smells, including wheelchairs, walkers and people who approach quickly and speak loudly.
Chloe may be one of the cleanest dogs anywhere. Within 24 hours before each visit, she must have a bath and have her ears and teeth cleaned. "She does go in the bathtub for me," says Morse.
After two years of work at Roswell and Absolut, Morse and Chloe completed the training and testing to be certified as a team by the national group HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response.
Some members of HOPE AACR have responded to provide comfort to people traumatized by Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Locally, Morse and Chloe participated in a program held by Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., after one of the school's students was murdered in 2010. After the students met to discuss the event and share their grief, "four of us went in with our dogs," says Morse, to provide comfort.
HOPE AACR teams travel for training and to crisis scenes at their own expense.
Morse says she and Chloe have attended training sessions at airports and on an airplane, as well as on a Coast Guard boat. "It's interesting and very educational," she says.
Chloe is friendly to people and dogs alike, says Morse. "She's very good with all age groups, from little kids to adults. Sometimes when she sees a little one, she lays down on the group and rolls over for a belly rub."
At all her volunteer venues, Chloe is known for giving subtle "doggie hugs," says Morse, by leaning against people. "She comes up and leans into your leg. When I go places they ask, ‘Is this the leaner?' "
What else is on Chloe's schedule? "She provides love and support to all of us here at home!" says Morse. She says she volunteers because "I count my blessing and just want to give back. I have a great support system—my husband, family and friends. I am fortunate I have the time. I know Chloe also really enjoys the volunteering. If we bring a smile to one person's face, it is all well worth it."