Bernie Schwartz is a dog lover.
He has owned four four-legged friends since 1980 – three of which participated in the Akron Children’s Hospital Doggie Brigade program. With this program, local volunteers walk their dogs around the unit, and young patients can play with and pet the dogs.
Schwartz is the most senior dog handler at Akron Children’s and is one of the program’s original members since its creation in 1992. His current dog, a black Labrador Retriever named Maddie, has been in the program for a little over two years, goes to the hospital with Schwartz twice a week and has clocked in over 230 hospital visits.
He is married with two grown children and three grandchildren.
How did you first learn about the Doggie Brigade and become involved?
BS: There was an article in the paper one day about a program starting at Children’s Hospital to have people with dogs come up and volunteer so I called them, and they sent me out an application right away. I didn’t hear anything for about a month, and then finally I got a letter saying to come down for a meeting.
How did the people at the hospital choose which dogs were best for the program?
BS: They give all the dogs a two-part test. The first part is obedience. The dog has to be able to sit, stay, lie down and heel on a loose lead. They have to be able to do this in a large classroom in front of the examiner and other adults in the program. The second part is the temperament test. The examiner and other adults the dog has never met will pet the dog and tug at his or her tail and feet to see a reaction.
Do you have to do any special training to prepare your dog for the Doggie Brigade draft?
BS: What you need is a dog that has basic obedience but every owner should teach their dog those skills. The dog has to be quiet and calm. The single best exercise I’ve found to train these dogs is to simply put a leash on them and walk them. Walk them up and down in the neighborhood, take them to PetSmart and as many places as they can get in with as many strange people as they can meet. It really helps a lot.
Do you get paid for your hours working at the hospital?
BS: It’s purely volunteer work! I went to the University of Akron and Akron Law School, and I’m a retired court magistrate with domestic relations courts. But Maddie – she works for biscuits.
Being such an animal lover, you must have grown up with dogs, right?
BS: I didn’t grow up with dogs, actually. The first one I got was on Christmas Day in 1980. I found him not far from Firestone High School. Well, it was more like he found me. I went on a walk, and there was this little dog sitting on a step. He came and ran toward me. His collar was plain with nothing on it. I gave him a pet and turned to walk home, and he followed me the whole way back. I tried to take him back to the high school so he could find his way, but he wouldn’t leave my side.
How would you describe Maddie’s personality?
BS: Maddie’s very laidback and easygoing. The only time she’ll bark is at 5 a.m. when they deliver the paper because she sleeps right by the door.
What is Maddie’s guilty pleasure besides volunteering and spending time with you?
BS: If you have a biscuit, she’ll go home with you. All the nurses’ stations have treats, and she remembers which nurses have given her biscuits in the past. If they say, ‘Come on, Maddie. Let’s get a biscuit!’ she’ll take off with them. But as soon as she’s done eating, she’ll turn around and run right back to me.
Tell me about your two other dogs that also worked at Akron Children’s Hospital.
BS: I had Maggie and Ben. They were both Labradors too. Ben was the most famous at the hospital. He did a lot of work with preschool kids who were outpatients with leg problems — all of them wore leg braces and some had arm crutches or walkers. After Ben passed away, they put a plaque up in the physical therapy area with his picture. All the kids loved him.
What’s been your most memorable moment working with the Doggie Brigade?
BS: One time, I was walking down the hall with Maggie, and a bunch of little kids came from different rooms to see my dog. They started petting her and wanted her to sit down. Instead of addressing Maggie by name, I just said, “Sit!”, and ALL the kids quickly sat down. It was like a drill team, it was so funny. I even had the ladies nearby cracking up.
What do you and Maddie like to do when you’re not at the hospital?
BS: We go on tons of walks together, even down to Summit Mall. Maddie also does the reading program at the Cuyahoga Falls Library. Second- and third-grade kids come in on Saturdays and read to the dogs. Now all I have to do is teach Maddie to read to the kids! Then we won’t be volunteering anymore … you’ll see us on Jay Leno!
/ Writer Katelyn Murphy is a senior at KSU working on her bachelor’s in magazine journalism.
E-mail them to editor Abby Cymerman at firstname.lastname@example.org.