Aspen’s Dog Therapy takes a bite out of patient despair
By Glenda Winders // Photography by Angela Jackson
Steve Litz and his wife, Stephanie, decided they weren’t going to have another dog. They received their first, a much-loved half-husky, half-malamute named Brittany, as a wedding gift in 1984. She was part of their family for 10 years until she got away from Stephanie and was hit and killed by a driver. Since then, they’ve had five purebred huskies, losing the last one about eight years ago.
“We said, ‘OK, we’re done,’” Steve said.” “We travel a lot and we’ve got new carpeting. But then our child in New York sent us the worst website on the internet — Minihuskies.net. I went there and saw pictures of the dogs, and they were the cutest things in the world.”
Stephanie is a pediatric dentist in Mooresville, and Steve is a retired criminal defense attorney. The couple have a home near Aspen, Colorado, where they go to ski, and international travel is one of their passions, as well. So they didn’t want to be tied down by a pet.
But once Steve had seen the miniature Siberian huskies, he couldn’t get them out of his mind. He put his name on the year-and-a-half-long waiting list, and when his turn came, he told Stephanie he was going to North Carolina — the only place where the dogs are bred — on a business trip. When he returned with a puppy, she wasn’t happy.
“Steph and I have been married for 38 years, and we do things jointly,” he said. “This was a great-big thing to do unilaterally. But that lasted all of about a day. She fell in love with Aspen.”
One of her concerns about having another dog was it meeting the same fate that Brittany had met. To make sure that didn’t happen they took their new puppy to Margaret Earl, the owner of Purpose-Driven K9 Dog Training in Greenwood, and when Aspen came home she was a fully trained off-leash dog. Except in places where leashes are required, she is leash-free, always staying at Steve’s left. When they are walking and he stops, she sits.
“If we didn’t have our other huskies on a 5-footzleash they, would take off and run forever,” Steve said. “That’s what huskies do, but she will stay or sit or lie down when we tell her to. That gives us peace of mind.”
When an uncle told him about therapy dogs, Steve decided to share Aspen with the rest of the world. The two of them were certified by an organization called Paws and Think, where Aspen proved she could perform such tasks as being near food without eating it. The group revoked their certification, however, when they learned that Aspen liked to jump up on people and give them “kisses.”
“I understand that you don’t want a dog who weighs 135 pounds running up to a small, elderly woman and knocking her down,” Steve said. “But Aspen (now 6 years old) is 28 pounds, and I always ask people if they want her on their beds or want her to lick their faces. The kids squeal and love it, and adults love it, too.”
Since Steve had already developed relationships with several nursing homes and schools, as well as with the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, it wasn’t a blow that they were no longer certified, and the pair have carried on since as freelancers. They visit three of their seven nursing homes on alternate Tuesdays and one on Thursdays. The interactions can last from five seconds to a few minutes, depending on how enthusiastic the resident is, what their needs are and what they want. Steve estimates that altogether they see about 500 people.
Natasha Sizemore, director of admissions and social services at Fairway Village and a member of American Senior Communities, said her company supports pet therapy at many of their locations.
“We are pleased to have Aspen and Steve visit our residents at Fairway Village regularly,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see the immediate change in demeanor of our residents when Aspen walks in. There are lots of smiles, and many of our folks enjoy calling her over, petting her and oftentimes sharing memories about their own pets. Those smiles last long after Aspen has left, and we are so grateful to Steve for sharing Aspen with us.”
It’s no wonder. Steve recalled some unforgettable moments when Aspen has made a difference in people’s lives. At one of the facilities, a woman they went to see was bedridden and non-verbal. Aspen always jumped up on her bed and Steve always talked to her, but she was catatonic and they never responded. Then, after a couple of months, Aspen jumped up on the bed and the woman said, “She’s so pretty.” The aide who was with her got tears in her eyes and said that the woman hadn’t spoken for two years.
“It still gives me the chills when I tell that story,” Steve said. “This is the power of therapy dogs.”
Once at an all-male dementia facility, a man was loudly cursing at the staff. When Steve and Aspen walked past, he stopped mid-scream and said, “Hi. She’s beautiful.” The two interacted with the residents in their usual fashion, and when they moved on the man started yelling again.
On another occasion, a woman, who was at the point of death, said she wanted to see Aspen one more time. Steve later learned she passed just two hours after their next visit. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they couldn’t go to residents’ rooms anymore, but one home arranged masked events out on the lawn since the residents wanted so much to see Aspen.
“She brings people so much joy,” Steve said, “and it’s universal. Whether it is a 3-year-old or a 103-year-old, they just take to Aspen. She’s soft and gentle. Mini huskies are rare. No one has seen them before.”
Carolyn Ertel, administrative assistant at Altenheim Senior Living, said everyone looks forward to Aspen’s visits.
“Steve is very faithful about coming,” she said, “and everybody enjoys seeing Aspen and spending time with her. She’s the sweetest dog ever, and we count on them coming to visit. It really cheers up the residents. We love her, and we love him, too.”
Marissa Vehnekamp, activities director at Bickford Senior Living, added: “Everybody loves for Aspen to be here in our building because the energy we get from her is so positive,” she said. “She and Steve say hi to all the residents one-by-one, and the residents love to pet her soft fur and see her piercing blue eyes. It is beautiful to have her here at our place. I think Aspen is an angel.”
When Steve, a four-time cancer survivor, isn’t traveling around Greenwood and Indianapolis with Aspen, he is still committed to doing good for other people. Early in his career, he established a surrogacy program to match childless couples from all over the world with surrogate mothers who can help them achieve their dream of parenthood. The first day after he put an ad in the Indianapolis Star 40 years ago, he arrived at his office to find a line of couples waiting at his door seeking help.
The service’s first baby was born in 1986, and the 540th child came into the world just recently — this one very special. Steve and Stephanie are parents of 34-year-old twins, and when their son and his wife were having difficulty getting pregnant, they became clients. The 540th baby was the Litzes’ first grandchild.
And Stephanie is equally giving. Once during a trip to Nepal, she performed dental procedures on children who had never been to a dentist before.
At some point in the future, when they no longer have Aspen, will Steve have a therapy dog again?
“It’s the most rewarding and satisfying thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “People love her, and it has been really special to have this happen. But she is my baby, and it would be hard to start over with another dog. Still, I said that before, so we’ll see what happens.”