Attention shoppers: There’s a Doggie Brigader in aisle six

Any frequent shopper at Summit Mall who happens to be a dog lover knows Marley. This beagle/pug mix is a staple at Ticknors, an upscale men’s clothing store, where Justin Couch is the manager and minority owner of the corporation.

Just look for the overstuffed leather chair and you’ll see Marley perched upon it, taking a snooze.

In fact, many of the folks who visit Ticknors aren’t there to admire the latest men’s fashions. They are there to reunite with a dog that helped their family through a difficult time at Akron Children’s Hospital.

I recently asked Couch to share some of his thoughts on volunteering in the Doggie Brigade as we reflect on the impact this program has had on our patients for the past 20 years.

Q. What kind of impact does Marley have on our patients?

A. Marley is around 30 pounds, so he is a smaller, stout dog.  His physical makeup makes him a great cuddle buddy in the hospital beds. Many children we visit are too ill to sit straight up, thus limiting their ability to interact.

Whenever this is the case, Marley will hop on the bed, nestle in with them and get real comfortable.  Everybody wins when this happens because the kids embrace him and feel at home even for a brief minute. And Marley’s never been known to pass on an opportunity for a warm spot to catch a nap.

Because of a lack of exposure, a lot of the children we see in the hospital are afraid of dogs.  There have even been occasions where children are hospitalized because of a vicious dog attack.  Marley’s physical appearance is anything but intimidating, and so we find it rare that we’re turned down for a visit.

There was one time when the nursing staff warned us not to visit a room because of how the boy was attacked. However, when we attempted to walk past the room, the boy asked us to come in. “That little dog can come in,” he said.  “He’s cute.”

I have a German Shepherd at home as well who has a wonderful temperament and demeanor. But because of how young some of the children are that we visit, I’ve chosen not to enroll her in the program.  Marley’s puppy-ish look definitely helps him to win the kids over.

Q. Can you share one or two scenarios where you felt Marley was a big help to our patients?

When I first started volunteering, I felt more in the way of health professionals doing the “real work” in the hospital. That was until we made our first trip to the emergency department.

Due to me working a retail schedule, Sunday nights are one of our most common days to visit the hospital.  The ED always has people who are awake, so when it’s a late evening visit for Marley and me, we end up there.

One night, we came to the suture room and heard the sounds of a young girl screaming. I peeked through the window to see a small child on the table with her feet kicking violently while the doctor, nursing staff and her parents stood around her. She had a gash above her eye and was not happy about the fact that she was receiving stitches.

I took that as my cue to pass this room up and move onto the next.  This room seemed preoccupied and I didn’t want to get in the way.

After a step or two towards the next room the door swung open and the doc asked us if we could come and visit.  I picked Marley up and began asking the girl about her pets at home, about school and the usual.  When she had Marley to pet and interact with, she stopped crying, kicking and complaining.  I was shocked!

The brief distraction we provided gave the staff the opportunity to finish their task and we were thanked profusely for our involvement.  The staff of the hospital are absolutely the true heroes and healers of the sick, but it was amazingly rewarding to feel like Marley and I had made own contribution on that case.

On another occasion, we made a brief stop to the physical rehab unit.  There was a young girl who was rehabbing a rotator cuff surgery and was not willing to participate in the exercises because of how much they caused her shoulder to hurt.

The rehab specialist working with her asked me if my dog liked to play fetch. “Of course he does,” I responded.  She then threw the tennis ball across the room and Marley ran and retrieved it for her.

After a few more tosses, the little girl wanted a turn herself.  This game of fetch went on to the point where the rehab specialist literally had to calm the girl down. Because even though she was wincing in pain with every throw, she was having so much fun with Marley that she was completely disregarding her pain.

It’s a mind over matter game with these kids. As long as they are distracted, the pain goes away.

Q. How do you feel about your time spent volunteering here at the hospital?

If you want a real answer to this question: I feel almost guilty.  When people find out that you’re a volunteer, the first thing they want to do is pat you on the back and thank you.  Don’t take me wrong, the volunteers who selflessly give their time for the sake of others are truly a special breed of humans that deserve to be given major applause.

That being said, what many who never have volunteered don’t realize is we’re doing more taking than giving.  I can have the worst day of my life, but when I put on my blue Doggie Brigade shirt and head to the hospital, instantly my problems are either completely washed away or put into such a perspective that I almost feel guilty for ever being down.

It has been said that “the greatness of man isn’t determined by how he handles success, but by how he handles adversity.”  Sometimes, observing others’ major problems (which are almost always much greater than your own) causes you to do a little soul searching and realize how great your life really is.

In the case of us Doggie Brigaders, to see someone so young and innocent deal with a major issue and then to have the ability to touch them and brighten their day is priceless.  Not only do your problems pale in comparison to theirs, but then knowing that you’ve actually helped them, even briefly, gives you such a great feeling that erases any sadness you walked into the hospital with that day.

Q. It seems to me that on most days, Marley is probably the only dog at Summit Mall. Why do you bring him to work and what is the reaction of your customers when they see him there?

That answer is simple.  Why not?  I believe that well mannered animals belong in regular parts of our daily lives.  Not everyone in this world loves animals. That being said, 99 percent of the people who come into my store love the fact that we have him here.  Marley (and this number is not exaggerated) receives double digit visitors at the store daily.

The reason I began bringing him to the store is because of the Doggie Brigade.  I knew about this program before I even acquired Marley, and I knew that in order to pass the examinations, he would need to be a very well human-socialized dog.

I started bringing him to Ticknors when he was only 8 weeks old.  His place here has grown almost to an iconic level.  For the past four years, Marley has been a mainstay in our Ticknors fall catalog, and people now associate our store with being the men’s store with the “hospital dog” in it.

He’s been here long enough that I’ve even reunited with patients and families I’ve visited in the hospital when they randomly make a visit to the mall.  This is always a great experience because usually they express their thanks and relate how the dog visit was the most memorable part of their hospital experience.

Q. Why do puggles make good Pet Partners?

A. I feel that puggles make good Pet Partners for many reasons:

  1. Extra skin.  Pugs are a wrinkly breed and sometimes when we’re visiting an infant who likes to grab and pull, this works out well because Marley has the extra skin to squeeze.
  2. While still a fairly disciplined breed, both pugs and beagles are very endearing.  Sure, a poodle, German shepherd or a border collie may be much more intelligent and disciplined breeds. However, I think they generally pale in comparison to how sweet and genuinely interested in people Marley’s breed is.

Q. How would you describe Marley’s demeanor?

A. He is named after Bob Marley and I feel he emulates his namesake fairly well.  Marley loves to chill out and relax for the most part.  But when it comes time to run around and play outside, he definitely can keep up with the best of them. Yet he prefers to sit on someone’s lap and nap above anything other than eating.

Have you been touched by Marley or one of our other Doggie Brigade members? We’d love to hear your story, or you can comment on this post.

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