Paws — walking alongside human feet — trotted up the musical steps of LifeTown in Livingston for a very special event on September 12. More than a dozen therapy dogs (and their equally appreciated human partners) came to enjoy a breakfast in their honor, thanking them for the volunteer work they do at LifeTown throughout the year.
LifeTown is the 53,000-square-foot center in Livingston where the Friendship Circle provides recreational, therapeutic, and educational opportunities for children, teens, and young adults with special needs. Friendship Circle’s core belief in integration also makes LifeTown an incredible place for volunteering. And those volunteers are not only people. Some of them are dogs.
The Shops at LifeTown, a simulated downtown where neurodiverse kids can learn and practice life skills including banking, shopping, going to the movies, and crossing the street, also officially opened for the school year that day. Staffed with volunteers in the nail salon, doctor’s office, and laundromat, among other places, LifeTown was bustling.
The Pet Shop in LifeTown ordinarily has a visiting therapy dog that greets school groups, which are welcome by appointment on Mondays through Thursdays. But on this special day, many dogs, proudly wearing the capes or bandanas with the Friendship Circle logo they’d received that morning, were in and out of the stores and strolling the main street, tails wagging.
There were two school groups visiting, and they got a bonus experience.
The pet parents — who had not all met each other before — were thrilled to talk about their experiences at LifeTown. Judy Sandman of Springfield and her retired Seeing Eye dog Quay have visited LifeTown several times and heard about this special day through her involvement in the Essex County Puppy Club, a group for retired guide dogs and their owners. “My children have volunteered with Friendship Circle, and it’s become a family tradition for us,” Ms. Sandman said, petting the calm, cool, and collected Quay. “It’s really a life-changing program.”
Jennifer Tanenbaum of Livingston was there with her son Ian, 21, and their 3-year-old dog, Cosmo. Cosmo isn’t certified as a volunteer yet, but the LifeTown setting is great practice. While Ian and Cosmo aren’t strangers to LifeTown — they’ve volunteered together over the last year or so — this was Jennifer’s first chance to see the shops in action, staffed with volunteers interacting with the school groups.
As she strolled around with her son, Ms. Tanenbaum noticed that some of the kids visiting that day were curious but a little hesitant about interacting with the dogs. “The kids may not get to see so many dogs in their daily lives, so it was nice to see such gentle interactions, encouraged by their teachers,” she said. “The setting really helps kids meet hesitation head on. And the breakfast this morning was a really nice nod to the dogs and their families.”
In addition to the joy dogs bring to people of all ages, there is science-based research about the benefits of pet therapy.
Dr. Barbara Listhaus of Livingston is a psychologist who has been involved with LifeTown. “Research has shown that the presence of an animal prompts the release of body-healing chemicals such as serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, which generates a calming effect that lowers the symptoms of anxiety and depression,” she said. “Interaction with pets helps improve the mood and generates positive emotions in all children, especially children with special needs.
“An animal companion can offer comfort and love to a child with special needs and help them become more social and responsible.”
Jennifer Rosenthal of Livingston had just seen the flyer inviting all the dogs who had volunteered there, along with any others who have owners who think they might qualify. She called LifeTown to see if she could bring her dog, Ozzie. “I wasn’t even sure what I was going to be doing there, but it was just all so special,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “I really enjoyed this opportunity to spend time with the kids as well.”
Like all dogs, Ozzie — full name Ozzie Aaron Rosenthal — has a back story. He’s 3 years old, a trained Seeing Eye dog who worked with a man in New York until he was diagnosed with an illness that forced him to retire. (Seeing Eye dogs, certified by the nonprofit organization in Morristown, work with people who are blind or visually impaired.)
Jennifer Rosenthal and her husband, Brent, empty nesters who have a history of adopting retired guide dogs, found the timing to be perfect. Their last dog, Willow, another retired Seeing Eye dog, died on August 1. Ozzie came home with Jennifer and Brent on August 25. His last working day was helping his former owner on a cross-country flight.
“Three weeks ago, he was working as a guide dog, bringing this person across the country on a plane,” Ms. Rosenthal said as Ozzie sat next to her, looking around the simulated cityscape of LifeTown.
“Ozzie’s arrival to our family allows him the opportunity to join us,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “Our two-legged guys are in college, but our four-legged son can join us.”
Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, the CEO of LifeTown, was there, watching the kids, dogs, and pet parents interact. Toba Grossbaum, Rabbi Grossbaum’s wife, was glad to see the volunteers honored that day but said candidly that she didn’t grow up around dogs and is still a little afraid of them.
“But my youngest daughter, Liba, practically begged me to let her skip school and come today to see the dogs. She loves dogs, especially Dunkin’,” Ms. Grossbaum said.
Dunkin’ is Lisa Schechter’s very big and very fluffy goldendoodle. Ms. Schechter travels regularly from her home in Englewood to bring Dunkin’ to interact with the kids. “My son named him Dunkin’ because he’s the color of a glazed donut,” she said. Because Dunkin’ is a certified therapy dog, Ms. Schechter brings him to many places, including memory care centers, senior homes, and the Mendel Balk Yachad Center for young adults in Teaneck.
Alicia Raskin of West Orange and her cavapoo, Ryder, are no strangers to the joy of volunteering “This is not Ryder’s first rodeo,” Ms. Raskin said as Ryder clearly enjoyed himself, greeting everyone he could.
The 2 1/2-year-old pup joined the Raskin family during covid, and Ms. Raskin said that out of all the dogs she’s had during her life, Ryder might be the nicest. “He’s obedient, cute, fluffy, and cheerful,” she said. “And I love volunteering. Lots of people want dogs and can’t have them for many reasons. So why shouldn’t we share?”
Getting Ryder certified as a therapy dog — his certification is from Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, a nonprofit in Morris Plains — was the perfect way to give back to the community, she said. “I love dogs and I believe the world needs dogs.”
Ms. Raskin trained Ryder herself; she learned how by reading and watching videos. She has a master’s degree in education, worked as a special education teacher for 21 years, and now is a learning disabilities teaching consultant.
She also is the mother of three sons; the dog love runs in the family. Her 16-year-old, Joshua, is a trained therapy dog handler; her 14-year-old, Pauly, is taking that training now, and Aaron, 11, wants to train as a dog handler too. All three feed, walk, and play with Ryder, and the two older ones volunteer with Friendship Circle. “LifeTown is a perfect place to put it all into action,” Ms. Raskin said.
Ms. Raskin’s favorite interaction of the day was with a little boy whose teacher was trying to talk to him. But the child was completely preoccupied with Ryder, smiling at him, talking to him, and playing with him. “He was completely engaged and just in the moment,” Ms. Raskin said. “It was beautiful.”
Ms. Raskin loved engaging with the other dog owners. She wasn’t expecting the scope of the acknowledgment from LifeTown, and how good it was to be around so many other pet parents. “It felt like another community unto itself,” she said. “You could see that even the dogs were extra happy!”
Inspired by Lisa Schechter and Dunkin’, Ms. Raskin gave Ryder his very first pre-Shabbat/Rosh Hashanah blowout a few days later. A new Friendship Circle bandana completed the look.
“The connection of dogs and Judaism has had a negative connotation for a long time,” Rabbi Grossbaum said. “In Jewish history, dogs were weaponized by the Egyptians, and later by the Nazis. But all God’s creatures have a purpose. And it is beautiful to see how dogs have come full circle at LifeTown. The connection with the kids is just joyful.
“It’s another example of taking something that was once stigmatized and turning it around into something positive.”
To learn more about volunteer opportunities for people, with or without their dogs, call LifeTown at (973) 251-0200 or go to its website, www.lifetown.com.