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UP CLOSE: Healing hound

Meet Zelda, a local therapy dog in training

Zelda, a therapy dog in training, sits outside the Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center on Monday, July 19. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — Stuck at home at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Saranac Lake native Traci Marie Wagner had only her dog, Maggie, to keep her company.

Wagner loved Maggie, a great dane-mastiff. She’d had the dog for 11 years, and it helped her through some of the hardest times in her life just by being there. With no family or kids to keep her busy during the pandemic, Maggie brought her a lot of comfort. Then she was gone.

“(Maggie) passed away during the heat of COVID last July, on my birthday, nonetheless,” Wagner said. “It really made me realize how much she provided for me in my life, because it’s just me. I didn’t have a family to fall back on or kids to keep me busy, drive me crazy. It was just this huge void.”

Losing a pet, even without the added impact of a pandemic, can be heart-wrenching. Much like losing a family member, people process the grief of losing a pet in different ways.

“I ended up just focusing 100% on work and just working all of the time,” she said.

Traci Marie Wagner stands with her puppy, Zelda, outside the Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center on Monday, July 19. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

Wagner is the general manager of Adirondack Health’s Medical Fitness Center in Lake Placid. The facility was closed for months last year. She worked remotely from March until the end of June, before the facility gradually reopened starting later that summer. Wagner, even while dealing with her grief, worked a lot to help get the facility back up and running.

“I look back on it now and think … that was probably not the healthiest thing to do,” she said. “It was my way of coping.”

After Maggie died, Wagner thought she wouldn’t get another pet for at least another 10 years. Then came a text message from Wagner’s hairdresser. She suggested getting a dog that was up for adoption, and that conversation led to Wagner doing some research about the breed, which led to her finding a breeder in Vermont. Then she met Zelda.

Zelda, a Bracco Italiano — also known as an Italian pointer — is a 15-week-old puppy bred in Vermont. Like most dogs her age, Zelda is playful and energetic with a friendly disposition. As Wagner spoke to a reporter at the Lake Placid Health and Medical Fitness Center on Monday, July 19, Zelda tried her best to get the reporter to play with her. When Zelda walked through the hallways of the facility, she happily accepted pats on the head and pets from staff.

After Maggie died, Wagner found herself wanting that companionship with a dog again. She did some research on therapy dogs and thought by getting Zelda, the dog could not only help her but others. Zelda isn’t fully trained yet — Wagner is still working on that — but the impact she has had on Wagner’s life has already been notable.

“The first thing I noticed with having her … I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t laughed like that in a really long time,'” Wagner said.

Wagner added that when she participated in a mountain bike challenge with a friend of hers in Elizabethtown and brought Zelda along, her friend said the same thing about the dog.

“Zelda is just able to make people feel good and laugh,” she said.

Wagner thinks it’ll take about a year to get Zelda trained and licensed as a therapy dog. At her age, Zelda will need to learn to sit on command, stay, lay down, come back to Wagner when she calls and not take a treat until she’s given permission. She has made some progress so far.

Asked if there’s been a moment while training Zelda that Wagner felt they were making some progress, Wagner pointed to the dog’s ability to not eat a treat until she’s told to.

“She’s so goofy when she does it. It’ll be right in front of her nose and she kind of bats her hands at it, but she won’t touch it. She won’t take it until I tell her it’s OK and I give it to her,” she said. “That was one of my big breakthroughs because that’s really challenging for a dog to do.”

Wagner hopes Zelda will be able to motivate patients to come in and get their therapy, help patients who might struggle with motivation to go to the gym, or just help other people as she has helped her.