Ozzie Otter is a mostly carefree, laid-back dog at home, but when someone needs his companionship, he is there to provide it.

Ozzie, a 3-year-old black Labrador retriever, shares his home with three other Labs and his owner, Peggy Roesner. 

Roesner, a retired teacher and a lifelong lover of dogs, dedicates nearly all of her time to her pack of dogs, and Ozzie, in particular, is a busy guy. The pair visits multiple places in McHenry County several times a week, providing comfort, joy, laughter and companionship to the many who need it. 

Roesner and Ozzie have been volunteering as a therapy dog team for over a year. The team visits Centegra’s hospitals, neuro-rehabilitation center and the Centegra Gavers Breast Center as well as area libraries and other places of need. Ozzie has also been asked to attend funerals for nurses and first responders to provide comfort to those who are grieving. 

Ozzie was an ideal choice for therapy work because of his temperament and trainability, according to Roesner. The team was tested by Pet Partners, a national therapy dog organization. They were evaluated individually and as a dog-and-handler team. Testing focuses heavily on a dog’s reliability, reactivity, training and disposition, among other qualities. 

A bit of a setback occurred when Roesner noticed some changes in Ozzie. The normally confident dog started to show concerning signs. Ozzie, pictured in front, photobombs a family portrait while owner Peggy Roesner laughs. Independent Photo by Whitney Rupp

“I began to notice he seemed clumsy,” Roesner said. “He was having trouble with doors, thresholds and different floor surfaces. In obedience he was missing jumps or walking into them.” 

So she took Ozzie to the vet, who noticed the changes in his eyes right away. A trip to the opthamologist confirmed that Ozzie was suffering from a form of corneal dystrophy, an immune-mediated disorder that is not common for the breed. The damage to his eyes cannot be reversed, but Roesner is hopeful that it will not progress.

The diagnosis may have shaken Ozzie’s confidence, but it turned out that he gained it back from the very people he helps in his therapy work. 

“His impairment hasn’t affected his ability to work as a therapy dog. One time a patient was walking Ozzie and I told him that he should drop the leash since Ozzie was never going to walk across the change in floor surface, but that patient believed in Ozzie. He had never walked on that floor [with me] but he looked up at the patient and continued walking with him,” Roesner said. 

When Ozzie isn’t on the job, he lets loose at home with Roesner’s three other Labs, the youngest of which is his nephew, 9-month-old Otis Blue, also a black Lab. Pebbles Petunia, another therapy dog, and Barley Bear, the only yellow Lab in the house, add to the action. But when it comes time to work, Ozzie is just as happy in that environment. 

“As soon as I put his vest on, he’s all business,” Roesner said. “All of these things we do, these outings he goes on, he knows when we arrive somewhere and is just so excited.”

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