After a lifetime of wanting a dog of her own, Philadelphia recreation therapist Liz Decina not only just got her wish, she also gained a new coworker at the same exact time.
Last week, Decina and 2-year-old black Lab-retriever mix Pender graduated from Canine Companions for Independence on New York’s Long Island, a nonprofit that has been breeding, training and raising service dogs since 1975.
Pender will join Decina at MossRehab and will also be involved in her work at its Drucker Brain Injury Center in Elkins Park. The two were paired when Decina, who had undergone a two-year application process, attended a two-week training session at CCI prior to graduation, where she incorporated herself into the training Pender had for the better part of the past year.
“You’re nervous, when’s the last time you learned 45 new skills in two weeks?” Decina said with a laugh. “You really want to do well, you want a great match. But it’s really hard, and you don’t want to fail. The dogs feel that, too.”
She and Pender clicked two days after meeting, when she was able to take him back to her hotel for the night. “I took his vest off and gave him the magic word to stop working to tell him to be a doggie, to play and hang out,” Decina said. “He just shook off the stress of the day and started wagging his tail and entire body.”
Dog on the job
After two weeks of “being attached at the hip,” Pender was two days into his first week at MossRehab when Decina spoke to Metro.
“He’s still getting used to all this,” she said. “We work in a big rehab hospital, there’s a lot of stimulation here. We’re still trying to educate everybody about how this is supposed to work and how it works when you’re walking down the hall and people are trying to recruit his attention.”
Decina’s work as a recreation therapist allows her to co-treat with occupational, physical and speech therapists, and Pender will be eventually work with patients four to five hours a day.
“Pender will be able to utilize close to 45 commands that he knows to assist patients in achieving physical goals, cognitive goals, social goals, emotional goals and even behavioral goals,” Decina said, adding that he can also open and close doors and drawers, turn lights on and off, pick up things that are dropped and more.
Dog off the job
Aside from getting used to city life where there’s not a lot of grass, Pender “appears extremely comfortable” in his new home, Decina said.
“He’s a cute little goof,” she said. “He has a lot of personality, a lot of character. He’ll come and greet you and go get a toy to bring to you. His whole body will be wagging because he’s so excited. He’s quite the licker, it’s so cute.”