Pet therapy has become increasingly popular in this country. Two official terms are now used for this practice: AAA,or Animal Assisted Activities, and AAT,
or Animal Assisted Therapy. Both are widely used for those who need a kind touch, a laugh or a lick. Dogs, cats, rabbits, even llamas,
along with their humans, visit the sick, infirm and lonely.
Pet therapy as a job is, apparently, quite wonderful for Moritz, a
100-pound Bernese mountain dog who visits patients at a hospital in Missoula, Montana, with his human, Barry J. Schieber. The author’s memoir, Nose to Nose, is the story of their earliest days of this avocation and a tribute of thanks from the author to his beloved dog companion.
Every Tuesday, they visit the hospital and, before and after each visit, Moritz is treated to a run in the nearby park. He even gets his own homemade biscuits from a staff member. Moritz is the largest – and probably one of the gentlest - of the hospital’s visiting animal therapists.
What the gentle giant does is touch his nose to a human’s hand or even face, or lay his large, expressive face on a lap. It’s that simple, and it works. Some people who have not moved much or spoken in months react quite strongly to Moritz’s short visit. The patients are between the ages of
five and ninety, in varying physical and mental conditions. Some remain in the hospital for a long time; others are in and out quite quickly. Most seem to admire – even love – Moritz.
The Bernese mountain dog once carried items for weavers, butchers, dairy farmers and toolmakers. Long popular in Europe, where it originated (Bern, Switzerland), the breed has been in this country since 1936. It has several older names: the Cheese Factory Dog, the Cheesery Dog, The Butcher’s Dog or the Farmer’s Dog. In France, it is called Bouvier Bernois. This canine is one of the most beautiful of the breeds, distinguished by its
silky tri-color coat. The dog, with its double coat and friendly, laid-back disposition, generally weighs in at around 75 to 85 pounds. It prefers colder climates; true to form, Moritz comes most alive in the fall and winter.
Schieber bought Moritz while in Switzerland recovering from a bout with cancer. European-bred dogs often live longer than those bred in the United States, presumably because of superior diet and perhaps fewer vaccinations. Schieber had had no intention to obtain a dog, certainly not such a large one. However, from the tales he tells, he doesn’t regret the decision. The dog remains an inspiration.
Although some dogs become stressed or depressed after animal therapy, apparently Moritz has
experienced no ill effects. He is sometimes a bit bored, but a romp in the park seems to restore his positive energy. As of the end of the book, he is healthy, well and greatly beloved by all whom he (literally) touches.
Nose to Nose is a quick read at only 111 pages
and one or two paragraphs per page. The cover illustration/photo of Moritz by Bob Denison is beautiful. However well-written, the book’s audience isn’t entirely clear to this reader. Schieber has subsequently written three picture books about Moritz (
A Gift to Share, 2005; An Open Heart, 2006; A Peaceful Mind, Travels with Moritz, 2007)), but this seems to be geared toward older children and adult readers.
If it is indeed intended for teen or adult readers, my only criticism is
that I would like more background on the individual patients and on Moritz himself. The language is spare, the portrait of each patient tiny. How does Moritz react to these sessions? What else does he do in life? And how has he so greatly improved the life of Schieber outside of working
as a team in these sessions? (Perhaps the latter is revealed in one of the picture books, next to be read and reviewed.)
That said, I like this book a lot and was touched by Moritz’s instinctive kindness and gentleness. I would recommend it to readers who love dogs, to those who believe wholeheartedly in “pet therapy,” and to those who are considering a Bernese mountain dog as a companion. The slim book is a testament to some of the great work dogs do for humans.
Check out Moritz’s website at
www.nose-to-nose.com. He has become something of a celebrity and receives fan mail.