By Philip Hosmer

The first time Steve Lesser volunteered for Pets on Wheels, he was discouraged and thought he was not a good fit for the program. He and his wife Eileen had taken their golden retriever Sandy to Arden Courts, a facility for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and he found it to be a difficult experience.

But his wife Eileen encouraged him to give it one more try, and on their second volunteer visit, everything changed. They saw lonely, tired looking faces light up when their dogs walked in the room, and they saw the connection being made between Sandy and the residents. Five years later, Steve and Eileen are among Pets on Wheels most committed volunteers.

“When I saw Sandy communicate with the residents, and how excited they got, it made me feel this is something I’ve got to do,” Steve says. “Many of these folks miss their dogs, they are lonely and depressed. Sandy would put a big smile on their faces even though some can’t speak.”

Each week, the Lessers, who live in Pikesville, visit Arden Courts, as well as Spring House and North Oaks, along with their golden retrievers Kelly and Cody. As soon as they go to the closet to get the dogs’ vests, Kelly and Cody spring into action, knowing that it’s time to visit their many friends. And the Lesser team has made friendships along the way that have enriched their lives.

Eileen recalls attending the funeral service of a man they had visited, but his family not recognizing them until they mentioned they were the volunteers who would bring Cody and Kelly to visit.

“Then their faces brightened and said “Of course you’re the ones with the dogs!,” Eileen said.

Steve remembers a patient who suffered from agoraphobia, the fear of leaving one’s home. The woman had not left her apartment for six months.

“The first time we visited, she crossed the threshold and walked out her door and played with Sandy for 15 minutes in the hallway outside her apartment.” Steve says. “Sandy’s unconditional love brought her out of her apartment.”

A man with Parkinson’s disease suffered from severe tremors, but when the Lesser team would visit, his tremors would quickly dissipate when he petted the dogs.

The Lessers remain dedicated to making their weekly rounds with Kelly and Cody. They’re not sure who gets more out of their visits, the patients or them.

“It gives you a wonderful, uplifting feeling to brighten someone’s day who is not as fortunate,” Eileen says.