A superhero in a tutu: Winnie the therapy dog, and her Jewish owner
Canine comfortDog helps out at airport and in court

A superhero in a tutu: Winnie the therapy dog, and her Jewish owner

Owner Martha Luzer, a nurse, wanted to find a way to help people even more. Enter Winnie.

Martha Luzer and Winnie (Photo by Abigail Hakas)
Martha Luzer and Winnie (Photo by Abigail Hakas)

It’s not every day that you see a dog wearing a little pink tutu in the Pittsburgh International Airport, but if you do, you’ll probably see Martha Luzer on the other end of the leash.

Luzer and her dog Winnie are regulars at the airport because Winnie has an important job: calming passengers by using her therapy dog training.

Luzer, a 70-year-old Bell Acres resident and Gemilas Chesed congregant, decided to raise therapy dogs as an extension of her work as a nurse.

“I wanted to get into something — and then really get involved once I retired — that combined being with people, helping people out and then my love for dogs,” she said.

A typical day on the job for Winnie at the airport starts with going through security.

“I put her in a sit-stay, I walk through security, and then I call her through — which immediately everyone in the security lines is in awe of the fact that she’s just walking through,” Luzer said. “She doesn’t have to do the hands-up through the security gate.”

After clearing security, the two log in at the United Service Organizations club before heading to the gates of any delayed flights. Occasionally, they’ll get called back in by the airport public address announcer.

“It’s hysterical. You’ll hear, ‘Will Miss Winnie please come to the USO club? Miss Winnie to the USO club,’ and then we’ll go back over,” Luzer said.

Winnie occasionally dons the tutu, a sort of superhero suit for a dog who often finds herself calming children who have never flown and sometimes comforting children flying with Make-A-Wish.

One of Luzer’s favorite stories to tell about Winnie is when she was able to calm down a sobbing boy who refused to get back on an airplane after it turned around on the runway. Unbeknownst to Luzer, her neighbor was sitting at the gate.

“There was a boy, who I could tell was just sobbing into his mother, who was terrified,” Luzer recalled. “And I said to the mom, ‘Would he like to say hello to the therapy dog?’ So, when I went to leave, my neighbor recognized my voice and came over and says, ‘Marty, you would not believe how upset that young man was and how calm he is now.’”

And Winnie’s work doesn’t stop at departure gates. Luzer also takes Winnie to the Beaver County Courthouse to provide comfort to witnesses preparing to testify — the majority of them are children.
Luzer has seen firsthand the impact Winnie has on children who are scared to testify. After working with a young girl for four months, Winnie was called into the courtroom for the first time when the girl refused to talk.

“The judge said, ‘Miss Marty, I understand that Winnie’s a special dog.’ I still get choked up. And for the first time in almost an hour, the little girl put her hand down and said, ‘Winnie’s my special friend,’” Luzer said. “And every time she would stop talking, Winnie would use her head to grab her hand to bring her hand down to pet her. You don’t teach a dog that.”

Winnie in her tutu (Photo by Martha Luzer)
Luzer knows that while an incident may just be a small moment in her and Winnie’s lives, it could be monumental in other people’s lives.

“It’ll be two years since that first event in that courtroom, and I get teared up,” Luzer said. “I get chills telling the story to other people. At the airport, I mean, I’ll never see most people again, but you know, for that brief moment in time I changed somebody’s life with something that I love doing.”

Winnie, a 9-year-old Labrador-whippet mix, came from a prison training program in Ohio where inmates were taught to train dogs. When Luzer put Winnie in a crate for the first night, Winnie immediately started crying. Luzer realized that since Winnie had spent every night in the cell with her trainer, she had never slept in the dark.

Eight years later, Winnie has yet to lose her youthful energy. You could mistake her for a puppy were it not for the dappling of white around her otherwise ebony muzzle.

“When she’s out in the woods, she’s a Lab-whippet. She’s everywhere. She’s looking for deer, she’s looking for rabbits,” Luzer said. “But she knows when this goes on, when the halter goes on, she’s working. So, her attitude? She has a lot of it.”

Luzer said her Jewish upbringing inspired her to live the life she does now with Winnie.

“I had a very extensive religious upbringing in McKeesport, in White Oak,” she said. “I went to Hebrew school from the time I was 4 years old until I was about 13. It just got ingrained with me that caring for others, that’s what we do. That’s who we are. That’s our religion. The tenet is caring and being open.” PJC

Abigail Hakas can be reached at ahakas@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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