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"He's a natural"

Therapy dog just knows how to love

Talk to anyone who encounters Cyndi Schmidt of Johnston, Iowa, and you get the clear impression she is in a class all her own. A nurse for 37 years, Schmidt has spent the last 16 years working with patients in hospice care.

If you talk to Schmidt, however, you’d think people don’t even recognize her without her faithful sidekick: a large, furry companion by the name of Gus.

“As much as I love what I do,” says Schmidt, “Gus is the one with a special gift.”

A giant bundle of curly black hair, Gus stands 2 feet 8 inches on all fours. Gus, who is 10 years old, has a friendly face and calm, easy-going demeanor. Light on his feet and confident, Gus may seem a little intimidating at first. But he has just the right touch of goofiness to put people at ease.

He also has a genuine, heartfelt way of resting his giant, fuzzy head gently on your lap. Naturally, this triggers certain emotions, mostly surprise and joy, in the many people he encounters.

A 90-pound golden doodle (a mix between a poodle and a golden retriever), Gus is a certified therapy dog. Schmidt says Gus is cut out for working with older people, people in assisted living, and people who are at the end of life. He is especially good at bringing happiness to people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“What many of us just don’t seem cut out to do, Gus accomplishes just by trotting into a room,” says Schmidt.

Patients respond to Gus, says Schmidt. “You see it in their eyes and their faces,” she says. “They just light up. He is a natural. I guess he just knows how to love.”

He Was Born This Way

Gus has always been a natural in a hospital setting, says Schmidt. It started when he was just a puppy.

“My coworkers told me I had to bring Gus to work so they could meet him, so I did,” says Schmidt. It was clear from the very beginning that he just had a connection with the patients.

On one visit, Gus purposely escaped the leash and made a beeline to the room of a patient who was particularly unresponsive. “At first I was horrified,” says Schmidt, who wasn’t sure what Gus was up to.

“When I got to the room, I recognized that Gus was on a mission. He had placed his head on the lap of the patient, whose family was sitting close by watching. The patient lifted his hand and patted Gus on the head. Then, the patient’s lips curved into a smile,” says Schmidt. “We hadn’t seen an expression on this patient’s face for weeks. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The patient’s family thinks he was having memories of his own dog, who had long since passed away.”

At this moment, Schmidt knew Gus had an instinct — a gift — for seeking out people and bringing them joy. “Gus has a certain quality that just works,” says Schmidt.

Soon after, Schmidt signed Gus up to be a certified therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a volunteer program that trains, tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers for visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and other places where therapy dogs are needed.

The classes require a special level of commitment from dog owners. “Even with a dog who is so natural at this, it was challenging,” according to Schmidt. “But it was worth it.”

Picking out Gus

Schmidt and her husband, Gary, are not first time dog owners. In fact, their first family dog was a bichon frise named Buddy, who lived to a ripe old age of 19 years. Years later, as empty nesters, the Schmidts decided to take the plunge into dog ownership once more.

“We knew we wanted a golden doodle. So we went to look at a litter. Typical for golden doodle puppies, there was a lot of energy,” says Schmidt. “But Gus nestled into my neck and snuggled. I just knew he was the right dog. That’s not to say Gus doesn’t have his moments, particularly when he was a puppy.”

In fact, to care for Gus, the Schmidts walk Gus at least three times a day. In nice weather, they take him out to a nearby lake for longer walks. “He definitely keeps us on our toes,” says Gary. “As calm as he is, he is still a high energy dog who requires a lot of exercise.”

Wherever the Schmidts go, Gus is the center of attention. They take Gus to charity walks, where he is the star of the show. They take him to libraries to work with kids. As a certified therapy dog, Gus can go just about anywhere.

“People sometimes don’t recognize me without Gus,” says Schmidt. “If Gus is with me, they often greet him and not me,” she laughs.

At home, Gus is just part of the family. He chills out. He sits on Cyndi’s feet to keep them warm. He watches his favorite TV show (The Westminster Dog Show). He eats. He naps.

In many ways, Gus is like any other dog. He loves unconditionally. He just doesn’t reserve that love for the people in his home. He seems to have enough for everyone.