on February 12, 2013 - 12:01 AM
, updated February 12, 2013 at 6:14 AM
On a bright, crisp winter morning, the main entrance of Roswell Park Cancer Institute is busy with people of all description, walking in briskly, making their way slowly, or being pushed in wheelchairs. A few visitors line up at the information desk; others pause in the sun-splashed atrium to get their bearings; more head right for the elevators, on their way to appointments.
Some people look worried, some resolved, some just stoic. But faces soften and smiles appear as people catch sight of a small beagle with immaculate white feet, tan ears and a glossy black body trotting in the door.
Sierra, a certified therapy dog whose official Roswell Park ID card is clipped to the pink leash held by David Marowski, is in the building. Marowski and his wife, Dorothy “Dobie,” who live in Olean, have driven nearly two hours for one of the beagle’s twice-monthly visits to Roswell Park.
Sierra, who is adorable from her mobile black nose to the bright white tip of her elevated tail, threads her way through the people. In front of the information desk, she picks out Wil Greenfield, who has driven four hours from Theresa, N.Y., near Watertown. She sniffs his pant leg, then lifts her face to him. He reaches down to stroke her velvety ears.
“I love dogs,” says Greenfield, who owns a black Lab named Good Girl and four cats. “The last time I was here I saw a goldendoodle.”
Two years ago, Dobie Marowski was at Roswell Park, but not as part of a therapy dog team brightening people’s day. Her breast cancer was treated with surgery and chemotherapy at Roswell Park, then with radiation in Olean. Today, she is not just well, she says, “I am awesome,” and she looks it.
Sierra and David Marowski are one of about a dozen therapy dog teams volunteering at Roswell Park, where the program started in 2006.
While Sierra is good at the standard therapy dog activities, approaching people with a soft look and sitting quietly to be petted, David also taught her several tricks.
Like many dogs, she shakes hands, touches an upheld hand with a paw in a high-five, and obeys hand signals to sit and lie down. But Sierra also stands up on her hind legs, and will roll over on command. Most interesting, she has somehow modified the well-known beagle yodel into a two- or three-syllable “Wooo-ooo” that can sound like “Hello” or even “I love you.”
Marowski can’t take all the credit for Sierra’s vocabulary. He started visiting senior homes with her after he retired nearly three years ago from his job as a mechanic for the City of Olean. He had taught Sierra to woo-woo “Hello,” then at one home, a woman named Marie expanded Sierra’s vocabulary.
“Some people just have the right voice for Sierra,” says David. “When she’s with Marie, she says something that sounds like ‘I love you,’ and ‘Mama.’ ”
“David will ask her to say, 'I love you,’ and she’ll go ‘Woo-woo,’ and David will say, ‘No, three syllables,’ so then she goes, ‘Wooo-woo-wooo,’” says Dobie Marowski.
Sierra is particularly attracted to children, and is permitted to join an ill child in bed if invited, “You should see her with the children,” she says. “It’s precious.”
David Marowski grew up with beagles, and the couple got their first dog, a beagle-terrier mix, as a wedding gift. Reverend, given that name by David’s father because he joined the family on a Sunday, was the first in a long line of dogs that were just pets.
When their previous dog died more than five years ago, at first Dobie said, “no more dogs.” That stance lasted two weeks. When spring of 2008 rolled around, they drove to Corry, Pa., to buy a beagle pup from a man who owned Sierra’s parents.
“We wanted a female, and there were two that really caught my eye, and David said, ‘You pick out the one you want,’ ” says Dobie. “The rest of the puppies were picking on her, she wasn’t the runt or anything but they were picking on her. So I wanted her.”
Dobie also named the pup. “She got to name the dogs and I got to name the kids,” says David, referring to son David and daughter Laura, both adults.
At first, Sierra was just a pet. But after David retired, he began to take her to a local senior home that allowed visits from friendly dogs. Soon, he met a woman there with a certified therapy dog who encouraged him to seek certification for Sierra, which would open many more doors for the person-canine team.
David was attending the training classes with Sierra while Dobie was having her chemo treatments. The training “took my mind off things a bit,” says David. First the beagle earned her Canine Good Citizenship certification, which requires a dog to accept strangers without a fuss, obey simple commands, ignore distractions and walk nicely on a loose leash. The therapy dog test also requires dogs to stay calm around people using canes, crutches and wheelchairs, limping, coughing or speaking loudly, and to allow a stranger to handle and pet them. When Sierra took her qualifying test, administered for Therapy Dogs International, she “passed with flying colors,” says David. “Some dogs are good with kids, some with older people, but Sierra is good in all venues.”
In October 2011, they started volunteering at Roswell Park.
David and Sierra keep a busy schedule, making at least one therapy dog visit each weekday. In addition to two trips a month to Roswell Park, they make visits at several senior residences, a local hospital, a radiation center and the Bolivar Free Library, where children read to Sierra every Thursday. “This is David’s new job, working with Sierra,” says Dobie.
“We get the weekends off,” says David. “It’s only two hours a day, most of the time. The long one is the ride up to Buffalo and the ride back.”
They have the trip to and from Roswell Park – which takes between 90 minutes and two hours each way, depending on traffic and the weather – planned out, stopping about halfway for a break for Sierra. Although the trip takes twice as long as the shift they are allowed to volunteer in the hospital, they are big fans of Roswell Park and have made a commitment to continue.
“I remember the first time we walked in there, I was just so overwhelmed,” says Dobie.
“Everybody at Roswell is just awesome, from the doctors to the janitorial people, everybody is so up,” says Dobie. “I’m glad we’re part of that, to give back. ... When David has Sierra say hello, people just beam, and so many people have thanked us even if they spend just two or three minutes with her.”
Amy Simeister of Buffalo, sitting in a waiting area at Roswell Park with a family member, appreciated seeing the adorable beagle and watching her do some tricks in return for tiny treats.
“We love all animals and this just helps pass the time when you have to be here all day,” she said.
As for Sierra, she makes her wishes known too. At Roswell Park and the other places they visit, “She usually pulls at the leash to go in,” says David.
To volunteer at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, dogs must be certified by either Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International, and the teams must be accepted through Roswell’s Volunteer Services program. To apply, complete the online form at roswellpark.org/volunteer, or call 845-5708 to apply or request more information.
On the Web: To see video of Sierra at Roswell Park, go to buffalonews.com/video