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English mastiff Duke brings remote joy to Harbor Village residents in New London

New London — When her beloved brother-in-law, Frank Maynard, was near death in November 2017, he asked Elizabeth “Tiger” Maynard-White to promise she would keep bringing her dog to visit sick and elderly residents at Harbor Village Rehabilitation and Nursing.

Maynard-White’s 4-month-old English mastiff puppy wasn’t a trained therapy dog at the time. She brought him to visit Frank, because Frank’s own dog was too jumpy and excitable to visit Harbor Village, at 78 Viets St. Duke was an instant hit, greeting residents and staff with a gentle, disposition and wagging tail.

After Frank died, Maynard-White, of New London, enrolled Duke in Pet Partners pet therapy dog classes and got him registered as an animal-assisted crisis response therapy dog. She now brings him to nursing homes, schools, special education programs and programs for adults with disabilities or developmental disabilities. Her wife, Debra White-Maynard — Frank’s sister — works at CW Resources Inc. in New London, which provides employment opportunities for adults with disabilities.

But with COVID-19 virus concerns prohibiting visitations at local nursing homes and hospitals, schools shut down and special education enrichment programs canceled, the now 3-year-old gentle giant Duke had been inactive and moping for the past several weeks.

Maynard-White joined him, feeling bad for the many residents and health care workers who have come to love Duke and cherish his twice weekly visits, including the copious amounts of dog slobber characteristic of his breed.

In-person visits and Duke slobber are still off limits, but Maynard-White has found an innovative way to bring cheer to more than a dozen residents at Harbor Village and to perk up the dog's spirits.

Window visits would keep that mandated social separation while bringing Duke up close to some 14 residents at Harbor Village. The single-story facility with large windows in residents’ rooms proved ideal. Maynard-White said much of the news about COVID-19 has centered on people who have lost their jobs, and students forced to continue school at home, with no social interactions or sports with their friends.

“These people have lost a lot, too,” she said. “They lost their visits of their loved ones, and the therapy dog visits. We are getting people who don’t get out of their beds, don’t get out in their wheelchairs, to come to the window excited about these visits.”

By her second window tour at Harbor Village on Tuesday, residents had decorated their windows with messages and cheerful spring artwork. Each window had a small placard stating simply: “Duke, Come to My Window.”

Windows had hand-painted signs, including several announcing the person to be a proud U.S. Air Force veteran, or “proud dad” of a U.S. Marine. Some had painted flowers and spring scenes. One window featured a drawing of a large tan dog followed by two small puppies.

“They want Duke to have puppies,” Harbor Village recreation director Jill Jeznach said to Maynard-White. “So, Tiger, get on that!”

“I want your dog!” Stella Wasik shouted through her window.

Residents waved and tapped on the window. Maynard-White called out their names, placed her hand on the windows and encouraged them to say hello to Duke. Jeznach carried a sign Maynard-White made: “DUKE SENDING HUGS & KISSES” decorated with cartoon character cutouts and bright red lips.

She left the sign to be displayed at Harbor Village.

By her next visit next week, she’ll have plenty of replacement signs. Maynard-White put out a call on Facebook for help to make signs to show through the window for the Harbor Village residents.

The Bailey family in Ledyard jumped at the chance to become the inaugural members of “Duke’s Army of Love,” pledging to make poster-sized signs with bright, cheerful decorations to accompany Duke’s visits.

Mary Beth Bailey, mother of Damien, 8, Jeremiah, 6, and Gracelynn, 2, said the entire family is “really excited” about the effort. Damien has been brainstorming messages to put on the signs: Be happy; Be kind; and one of the family’s favorites, the Lion King song “Hakuna Matata,” meaning “no worries.”

“We love animals, and we’re excited to see Duke spreading the special messages to people,” Bailey said.

Maynard-White hopes other families join Duke’s Army of Love, and that other therapy dog handlers join her in making outdoor window visits to nursing homes and other residential facilities now in isolation throughout the state. She's looking for a sponsor to make "Duke's Army of Love" stickers for the volunteers.

She sent photos of her visits to Pet Partners, which sent it along to national media outlets. A freelance reporter for "The Today Show" interviewed her plans to post a story on its website, Maynard-White said.

“More teams should be doing this,” she said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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