Three mornings a week, Doris Schoenhoff picks up Brother Giovanni to volunteer at Mother of Good Counsel Home in north St. Louis County.
She can tell he’s excited by how quickly he races to the door — tail wagging.
Brother Giovanni, or “Gio,” is a Hungarian vizsla owned by Father Mark Dolan, pastor of Our Lady of the Presentation Parish in Overland. Schoenhoff, who grew up in Our Lady of the Presentation Parish and returned after a career that took her all over the world, took Gio to be trained as a therapy dog about eight years ago. That’s uncommon for a vizsla, but he passed with flying colors and has been visiting assisted living facilities and nursing homes with Schoenhoff ever since.
“When I first started to bring Gio to nursing homes, I did it because I believed in him — I believed that he could reach patients that staff could not reach and patients that rarely get visitors or experience intimacy,” Schoenhoff said.
Over the years, the two have been regular visitors at the Little Sisters of the Poor (before its closure in 2018), the Missouri Veterans Home, Nazareth Living Center, Jesuit Hall and Mother of Good Counsel Home. After COVID restrictions stopped their visits for several months, Doris and Gio are now typically found at Mother of Good Counsel Home three days a week, with regular visits also to Friendship Village.
At Mother of Good Counsel Home, Gio and Doris wait by the door to the chapel to greet people as they enter for 9:30 a.m. daily Mass. Gio walks over to the residents and workers, calmly putting himself within close reach for pets and head scratches.
“How are you doing, Joe?” Schoenhoff greeted a resident. He reached down to pet Gio, murmuring, “There’s a good boy.”
After Mass, Schoenhoff and Gio are at the door again to see people on their way out of the chapel. Then, they head down the hall, stopping into offices along the way. Gio’s presence is important not just to the patients but also to the care and administrative staffs, which include several Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.
“He brings joy,” said Sister M. Clarita Collins, a finance assistant in the home. “He’s really good with the residents — he just loves to come here, and people love to see him.”
Schoenhoff and Gio stop to chat with anyone and everyone — small groups gathered for activities in common spaces, residents in the halls, a staff member pushing the laundry cart. “Brother Gio, you make my day!” a nurse calls as they pass her station.
Although she jokes that she’s invisible when she’s with Gio, Schoenhoff herself brings love and friendship to the people she encounters. Over the years, she’s had the chance to get to know residents of the various homes she as they age, visiting them in their final months, weeks and days.
“A nurse said to me, ‘You can do this because you’re not afraid to be with people who are dying,’” Schoenhoff recalled. “So many people are afraid to be around someone who is dying … but it’s just you being you, and you’re with another person — their spirit and your spirit. That’s what it comes down to.”
Schoenhoff’s faith is what calls her to her ministry with Gio, she said. When she meets new people in the home, she has no idea what their backgrounds are, and sometimes they are not able to communicate much with her. But that doesn’t matter to her, or Gio.
“Jesus tells us to love one another, and that’s what this is about — loving one another,” she said.
Gio is 12, getting to be a “senior” himself. But even when he’s not able to visit homes anymore, the way he indiscriminately brings joy and care to everyone he meets can serve as an image of God’s love for us, she said.
“He has taken me on a journey of love and laughter, and I hope to do the same for others,” Schoenhoff said.