Dr. Gary Marcus, a licensed psychologist, and Katrina Zabinska, a licensed mental health counselor, with their therapy dog, Ollie. Photo by Haley Karnes
Dr. Gary Marcus, a licensed psychologist, and Katrina Zabinska, a licensed mental health counselor, with their therapy dog, Ollie. Photo by Haley Karnes
On a recent afternoon in Magnolia, Dr. Gary Marcus and Katrina Zabinska invited their nearest and dearest to a puppy shower for their new 3-month-old, 40-pound bundle of joy.

Ollie is no ordinary puppy. He’s a Bernese mountain dog being trained as a therapy dog by the married therapists. The guests were a mixture of therapists, neighbors and friends. While Freud had his Vienna Circle, Ollie will have his Magnolia Circle.

Everyone brought gifts, from a squeaky blue elephant and chewies to a marrow bone from the butcher shop, paper towels and Ollie’s horoscope. Ollie strutted and bounced around, giving each guest a chance to pet him or invite him to sit on their laps. Some guests even got kisses.

Ollie is a therapy novice. He will go through extensive training to become a registered therapy dog.

Why a Bernese mountain dogs? “Because they are very affectionate, intelligent and bring joy to clients,” Zabinska said, stroking Ollie’s head. “Berners can be indoors with people all day. They’re totally at ease.”

Helping with healing

Therapy dogs actually date back to World War II, when Corp. William Wynne rescued an abandoned Yorkshire terrier, whom he named Smoky. She soon joined him on combat missions.

Later, when Wynne was hospitalized, his colleagues brought Smoky to visit him. Smoky not only managed to cheer up Wynne but other wounded soldiers as well. The commanding officer, Dr. Charles Mayo (of the Mayo Clinic), was so impressed, he allowed Smoky to go on hospital rounds. Thus, Smoky became the first-known therapy dog.

As a therapy dog, Ollie’s job is to help clients relax, feel comfortable and quicken the healing process. His training began immediately. He started going to the office the day after he arrived at the therapists’ Magnolia home. He spends eight hours a day, five days a week in their offices.

In the broadest sense, Ollie will encourage people to deal with difficulties, diseases, stress and other mental or psychological conditions. Petting dogs like Ollie helps to reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and stimulate the releases of many important hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain that promote proper body functions.

Ollie is already winning the trust of clients. He’s friendly and enthusiastic. He even talks to you, not with a bark or growl, but more of a “ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh.”

He also has a fondness for feet. He likes to lick patients’ feet and use them as a pillow.

One free-spirited guest at the shower suggested that’s because he’s a Pisces (born Feb. 24, 2014), and Pisces’ feet are the most sensitive part of their bodies. Everybody laughed.

Meanwhile, there were treats for the humans and for Ollie. The pièce de résistance was a large carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, decorated with dog bones and a playful Bernese pup.

There was a unanimous decision to let Ollie taste the frosting. As it was, he had five licks. He would have eaten the whole cake.

Finding the perfect dog

Ollie is the third therapy Bernese mountain dog for Marcus and Zabinksa. First came Timber in 2004, and a year later, Moose.

“We started taking them to work with us,” Zabinska explained. “Our clients have said how much they appreciate the dogs in their sessions — all of them: adults, teens but especially children. They wrote poems and drew pictures of Timber and Moose. It was very moving.”

Sadly, after, participating in years of counseling sessions, both Timber and Moose passed away. This left a large emptiness for both therapists and clients, so Marcus and Zabinska contacted a breeder in Pullman, Wash.

In the end, it came down to a choice between two 8-week-old puppies. They were both affectionate and confident — either would be perfect. Marcus and Zabinska played and interacted with both dogs for hours. Finally, they settled on one and completed the paperwork.

Preparing to leave, Zabinska found her husband sitting on the grass holding the other pup. It seems when Marcus walked away, the puppy started crying and whimpering.

“That was it,” Marcus confessed. “He tugged at my heart. We went back and changed the paperwork, took him home and named him Ollie.”

As the puppy shower progressed, everyone was asked to write down words of wisdom for Ollie. “Stay fluffy Ollie.” “Take time to eat the flowers.” Remember, it’s all about the treats, but don’t eat chocolate.” “Don’t throw up on mommy and daddy.”

One curious guest couldn’t resist asking why there was only one dog in attendance.

“Maybe we’ll invite more next year,” Zabinska teased, “for Ollie’s birthday party.”

STARLA SMITH is a longtime Queen Anne resident. To suggest a Queen Anne/Magnolia resident to be featured in “Starla Speaks,” email starlaspeaks@gmail.com.

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