Dog-biscuit diplomacy

Senior center meal drivers cater to pets

Kitty the dog is a bonafide home-meal delivery alarm.

The 4-year-old black furball starts wriggling before the Palmer Senior Center van loaded with lunches even rumbles down the road.

“Kitty knows when he turns that corner out there,” Susie Kammermeyer said, standing in the doorway with husband Leo as their little Shih-poo munched on a treat. “She gets excited.”

The couple gets meals from the Palmer senior center’s food-delivery program that serves Mat-Su Valley residents from Sutton to Meadow Lakes.

Kitty the dog gets a bite too: a biscuit or two from the hand of Lou Joest, the senior center’s meal-delivery driver on the South Palmer run that includes the Kammermeyer place.

Palmer’s senior center, doing business as Mat-Su Senior Services, delivers 180 meals a day on sealed trays that cater to nutritional and health needs. The majority of those clients own pets. Now a majority of those pets get free dog biscuits from the corps of meal-delivery drivers.

Mat-Su Seniors received a $1,200 grant from the Banfield Charitable Trust in October 2012. The Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit’s mission is keeping pets in homes and out of shelters. The money came out of a pet-food grant program for the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

Such grants can go toward donated pet food, treats, cat litter, medical care or grooming, according to a Banfield representative.

Palmer decided to use the money to pay for dog biscuits. Now the center goes through about 20 pounds of biscuits a week.

“It’s an effort to make the animals appreciate the van pulling up in the driveway, not just the owner,” said Joe Bowers, operations manager for Mat-Su Senior Services. “We have one lady, her dog won’t actually eat the biscuits. She’ll come up to the driver and take one. She puts them between the cushions on the couch. Every two weeks, the owner gives them back to the driver.”

Clients will call the center if their meal is even five or 10 minutes late. How do they know? Their dogs are going nuts waiting for the meal-delivery driver, who happens to be a few minutes behind schedule. Some clients say they have to let their dogs out around meal delivery time because the animals are getting so antsy.

The senior center started giving out biscuits last year but didn’t realize how popular the policy was until administrators happened to send out a questionnaire as part of a grant package.

“We asked our home-delivered meal folks the impact that the meal had,” Mat-Su Seniors deputy director Rachel Greenberg said. “About a third of the letters mentioned how great it is that we don’t even forget their pets.”

Clients appreciate the personal touch. But the biscuits also keep delivery drivers on good relations with household pets – dogs, sure, but also pot belly pigs and rabbits.

Many seniors live with pets. Animals provide companionship for people living alone. They provide unconditional love and structure. One study showed that people with dogs reported fewer doctor visits.

Maybe, on a bad day, they just give people a reason to get up in the morning.

Joest keeps a big coffee tin full of multi-colored biscuits in his 1998 Ford delivery van. He pops a few into meal bags going to dog owners. He puts a few in his pocket.

Truth be told, he’s made a few friends that way.

Boo the sweet but wary bulldog, for one. Boo came from an abusive home before ending up in a cozy apartment with his current owner, Randy Long, who lives in a senior-housing complex in Palmer next to the senior center.

Boo was not super pleased to see Joest at first. The dog favors women over men. It took a few biscuits before a potential bite became a big slobbery grin.

“He likes me as long as I’ve got the goodie,” Joest said.

On a recent visit, the driver knocked on Long’s door. Long emerged. Boo came out. The man got his meal. The dog got his treat. Dog-biscuit diplomacy at work.

Joest drives up to another Palmer-area home, this one in a subdivision across from the Alaska State Fairgrounds.

Two big dogs in a fenced yard run over and start trotting up and down the length of the fence. Another dog – a pretty white Samoyed that’s not even in the meal recipient’s yard – takes one look at the van and starts howling and yipping at Joest.

That’s Sally, the driver says. She gets a biscuit too. When he started the run, he didn’t have the heart to give the other two a treat without sharing.

Meal recipient Tony Anthony lives with three dogs: the two outside and a little long-haired chihauaha named Yager, who stays in the house.

Inside, a caregiver and the meal recipient’s daughter talk about what happens if all three dogs are inside when Joest arrives. The big ones run up, but then the little one darts between their legs to get his bit of biscuit too.

“There’s a routine,” Anthony’s daughter, Donna, said. “As soon as he shows up, they know.”

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