COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — Nobody could keep a straight face when Caliber the Leonberger sneezed into Leonard Hanson’s lap.

Hanson’s smile grew as he reached up from his wheelchair to pet his furry pal, and Caliber even seemed to smile back.

Such is the life of a therapy dog, whose mere presence can mean the world to those who are suffering and in need of the pure love of a canine companion, reported the Coeur d’Alene Press (http://bit.ly/2bUCMKo).

“We have to go into environments where people are pretty depressed and pretty down,” said Caliber’s owner and handler, Dave Neptune. “The job of the therapy dog is to lift the mood, to alter a mood from bad to good. And it’s amazing they can do it by just looking at them and touching them.”

Neptune and Caliber paid a visit to Coeur d’Alene Health Care and Rehabilitation Center to do just that. They visited with a few residents and the joy and dog stories began to flow.

“I think everybody’s happy when they see Caliber,” said Coeur d’Alene Health Care and Rehabilitation Center resident Marlyn Bruninga. “I want to keep him here. I hate to see him leave.”

While the 9-year-old, 160-pound giant canine has made many friends in his eight years with Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc., he and Neptune will be leaving the area in just a couple weeks and retiring to Sandpoint.

Neptune said he knows a lot of people in the Coeur d’Alene area will miss the big boy, but he is hoping to do more canine therapy after they get settled.

“He’s got another couple years of therapy,” Neptune said. “They love their dogs up there. Caliber’s going to fit right in.”

Neptune is the Idaho regional director for Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, which is one of the largest volunteer therapy dog organizations in the nation. Since its inception in 2001, more than 10,000 dogs have been tested to do therapy work, and Neptune alone has evaluated 114 dogs and handlers.

Caliber is Neptune’s second therapy Leonberger, succeeding Rambo, and also serves as Neptune’s personal service dog and best buddy. Neptune is a war veteran with his own health problems, so he knows firsthand how effective the canine therapy can be, especially with a sweet-tempered dog like Caliber.

“Dogs that make the best therapy dogs are ones that people put a lot of love into,” Neptune said. “If a dog doesn’t have a lot of love put into it, it can’t put it out. It’s almost a continuation from you down the leash into your dog.”

Introducing Caliber to residents of assisted living facilities and patients in hospitals is not always easy. Neptune gets emotional when he talks about the sick and dying people he and Caliber have spent time with and how much the dog meant to them in their final days.

“A school teacher named Vivian, she loved Caliber so much,” he said. “Actually, it was Rambo I started to see with her, and he would go in and put his head way up on the bed, which most dogs couldn’t do because she was on one of these high beds. And she just went from sad to so happy. She was in assisted living, and a lot of those people are in end-of-life care. And that’s what’s hard, knowing that. It’s an honor to get those people out of their situation for just a moment.”

The Leonberger is a mix of Saint Bernard, Great Pyrenees and Newfoundland. Fluffy and fun-loving, these giant dogs stand at least 3 feet tall from the top of the head to toe and have paws the size of a grown man’s hands.

Neptune said even when his certified therapy dog is not in work mode, he still turns heads and attracts crowds of people who just light up when they see him.

“Everyone knows Caliber who has ever seen him because he’s so unusual,” said longtime Bright and Beautiful volunteer Julie Westbrook, whose therapy dog is a friendly golden doodle named Murphy.

“He’s the sweetest thing,” she said of Caliber. “I held him once and Dave was here assessing someone and I tried to hold him and it was like there was no one on the other end of the leash.”

Chelsey Holder, a certified nursing assistant at Coeur d’Alene Health Care and Rehabilitation Center, said a little bit of pet therapy goes a long way for her residents.

“I’ve seen residents who are completely down and out and not really wanting to talk or converse, and then the animals come in and they get that smile on their face and they want to start talking to everybody. It really does perk them up and give them that energy that they need,” she said. “It even gets their hands and their motors going. It provides additional hand exercises and range of motion exercises, being able to reach over and pet the animals and hold them and cuddle them.”

Wendy Hundley, activities director for the center, said they have been utilizing pet therapy for at least eight years.

“It allows them to express love,” she said. “It just heightens their moods and they make friends with them. They actually become part of the family.”

Neptune said he wants “to thank all the wonderful people and organizations that have embraced this therapy dog program with such enthusiasm” and that the program would not be successful without the dedication of the volunteers.

“They’re all heroes, all these people that volunteer,” he said. “There wouldn’t be a program without them.”

Neptune said he will be passing the Bright and Beautiful leash to a new regional director, Kathy Widmyer, who has a stellar Newfoundland named Moose who will carry on Caliber’s work.

And although he and his gentle giant are moving north, they will be back from time to time.

“I live by a park and everybody is so mad at me for taking him away,” Neptune said. “We are going to visit. We’re not moving to California — we’re just going to Sandpoint.”


Information from: Coeur d’Alene Press, http://www.cdapress.com