Michelle Sharf's Portuguese water dog, Murphy, can handle the most challenging of interactions at two major hospitals.
That wasn't always a given. As a puppy, he destroyed all the moldings in the house.
"Face of an angel, mind of a devil," Sharf said, "but he's a sweetheart now."
The 3-year-old therapy dog went through extensive training to get the green light to walk the wings of John R. Oishei Children's Hospital once a week and visit the common areas at Roswell Park Cancer Institute twice a month.
Sharf, of Amherst, is a registered nurse who once worked the cancer floor at Women & Children's Hospital. She and her husband, Zvi, a doctor, have three children, Ariella, 24, Benjamin, 21, and Olivia, 19.
She got Murphy after Benjamin went off to college. Sharf discovered her dog generally had an easy-going attitude, despite his mischievous side.
"We'll spend the most time with the kids that need it the most," she said of their visits to Children's. "Sometimes, we'll get to two floors."
Sometimes, their two-hour shift might involve visits only with a few children, like the time they hung out with a child who was recovering from a critical injury and hadn't been out of bed for a few weeks.
"I said, 'Why don't we go walk Murphy?' He got out of bed, got in the wheelchair and held the leash. The nurses said, 'This is unbelievable, we couldn't get him to move,'" Sharf recalled. "Someone like him, we spend a half our shift with. I always cover the ICU, the cancer floor and I also like to go to the pre-operative floor, where the kids and the parents can be very anxious.
Q. Is Murphy a lap dog?
He thinks he is. He weighs 34 pounds.
Q. What does it take to make a dog a therapy dog?
Every time we're in the hospital people say, "We should bring my dog. My dog can do this." It takes a unique temperament. They need to pretty laid back, not afraid of anything. They go through quite a bit of obedience training. Then he got his K-9 Good Citizen certificate, which is like advanced obedience training. … For the test, they have to do a lot of things. There's one part where you have to leave him with a trainer and be out of sight. If the dog gets really nervous, they fail. They simulated a hospital scene, where they had someone with a walker, someone with a wheelchair, someone screaming - and the person with the walker had a Chicken McNugget trying to entice the dog. Murphy really wanted it but knew he wasn't allowed. That was where another dog failed. Then they drop a container of coins. Some of the dogs were terrified. He just kind of looked and said "Oh."
Q. What kind of tricks can he do?
He can pray; he goes up on his hind legs and crosses his front paws. He does embarrassed, which seems to be the favorite; he lies down and puts his paws over his nose. He waves. He does an Army crawl. He can spin.
Q. What sort of reaction do you get from families and, particularly, children?
A lot of times the doors are closed and unlocked and I'll pop my head in and ask if they'd like a visitor. They look as if to say, "I have no idea who you are. Why are you visiting me?" Then Murphy walks in and I say, "He has four legs and is very furry." They see him and their eyes light up and their jaws drop and they forget why they're there. I tell the parents, "He's not just here for the kids. He's here for the parents, the staff, for everybody." Then I get, "Thanks. I needed some therapy today."
I had an employee ask me, "What kind of dog is he, a Snickerdoodle?" That's a type of cookie! Also, I was walking out of the restroom one day with Murphy when a grandmother asked, "Is he potty trained"? I was thinking to myself, that's an interesting question! I quickly responded ..."No, but I am!" More reasons that I love what I do.
Q. How can patients benefit from therapy dogs?
It helps them forget their problems. It's been proven to lower their blood pressure. There's just a sense of calm when he comes in.
Q. Does Murphy dress up this time of year?
He does. He's not a female dog, so I can't put on the cute little dresses. He has a little elf hat. He always wears bandanas that are seasonal with his name on them. He has one that says, "I'm the reason we can't have nice things." At Christmas, he wears one that says, "I can explain." He had a little superhero costume on Halloween and I was all excited because his day fell on Halloween but he ate a box of chocolate with raisins and spent the day getting his stomach pumped, so he didn't make it.