Buster Brown, therapy dog, is serious about his job

Barbara Hootman

Buster Brown is a registered therapy dog with a soft, warm touch that runs from his paws to a human’s heart. His handler, Martha Server, witnesses it every week. She herself fell victim to it.

“I was teaching a fitness class at a gym near Fort Bragg and saw a picture of a cute puppy on the door and said that I wanted the dog,” Server said. “I fell in love with a lovable puppy with blue eyes.”

The puppy became a nationally certified therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International when he was 20 months old. Now a handsome 8-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Buster Brown started training when he was only a few weeks old and continued to train intensely during the 12 months prior to certification.

“We purchased Buster Brown as a gift for a fallen military hero’s family, but they couldn’t take him at the time because of living circumstances. And after he lived with us, we weren’t willing to let him go,” Server said. “The family is still thrilled that his life has been devoted to serving veterans and children.”

Every week for the past five years, Buster Brown, with Server in tow, visits the Community Living Center at the VA Medical Center in Asheville. The veterans at the center need care ranging from short-term rehabilitation to nursing and hospice care. Buster doesn’t care what illnesses they suffer; he loves them unconditionally and accepts them as they are, expecting nothing more. He doesn’t care if the veteran has lost hair to chemotherapy or his speech to a a stroke. Buster Brown creates a unique bond with the patients that has a healing dimension.

And as a reward for his visits, Buster Brown gets a lot of love.

“Many of the veterans confined to wheelchairs push themselves to the canteen located in the basement of the hospital to purchase treats for him,” Server said. “I always have treats to share with the veterans, but many insist on having their own goodies to give him. Buster Brown doesn’t shy away from those who are about to pass (away). He may be the only therapy dog that has ever been allowed into the ICU (intensive care) unit at the VA hospital.

“At the request of patient Mike Poole, a Vietnam vet who was known as the unofficial mayor of the Black Mountain Dog Park, a nurse granted Buster Brown permission to visit him,” Server said.

“Immediately Buster jumped up beside Mike to provide him with healing comfort. He barked once, and that alerted other patients that he was there, and they requested a visit. He provided comfort to family members and staff. Poole died on Valentine’s Day in 2013 with Buster never missing an opportunity to visit with him weekly.”

One special visit was with a marine who was suffering terminal brain cancer. Buster Brown jumped in bed with the marine and had a long visit. The next week when Buster returned, the marine had passed. Buster Brown attends some of the memorial services.

“It was sad but rewarding that Buster was the last dog the marine knew on this earth,” Server said. “I think he knows how sick some of them are. Many of the patients at the VA hospital have no family members locally, and others have few visitors, making Buster’s visits even more important.”

Buster Brown also provides therapy for children at Black Mountain Primary and ArtSpace charter schools. He is especially fond of the reading programs.

“Students spend a lot of time reading to him and sharing their problems and feelings with him,” Server said. “One young man said that his father had been taken to prison on the day Buster was visiting. The little boy always looked forward to hugging him and getting wet kisses in return. At the schools, Buster has a small rug that he sits on the entire time while the children read to him, which has lasted up to three hours. He has visited many different schools and has an active relationship with Black Mountain Primary and ArtSpace Charter School.”

One student wrote, “Thank you for visiting us. Thank you Buster Brown for listening when we read. When you are not here, I imagine that I am reading to you.”

Buster Brown also participated in developing the pilot program for veterans at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.

“One of Buster’s most moving moments came during a visit to St. Joseph of the Pines Rehabilitation Center in Southern Pines,” Server said. “This was the site of Buster’s first therapy job. He approached a non-responsive woman in a wheelchair who had been in a coma for some time and no one had been able to reach her, not even the director’s dog.

“Buster began to lick both of her cheeks, and she slowly smiled and opened her eyes for the first time since she had gone into a coma. People in the large rehabilitation room, including staff patients and family members, began clapping with tears in their eyes. During future visits, the woman’s son and family members always approached Buster Brown and thanked him again for what they considered his miracle therapy.”

Buster Brown became well-known at the dog park in Black Mountain and made friends with many of the homeless people who find shelter at First Baptist Church of Black Mountain in the winter. The dog is the international ambassador to the Montreat College men’s team and attends the games. The majority of the men playing on the team are from countries outside the U.S. and have never had a personal relationship with a dog. Buster Brown has participated in several Blessing of the Animals ceremonies ate various area churches as well as prayer walks at the Community of the Cross retreat center in Black Mountain.

Buster Brown has also been nominated by the Black Mountain Kiwanis Club twice as Volunteer of the Year.

“It gives me chills - good ones - to think of all the ways God has used Buster Brown,” Server said. “Where he goes in the community, he reaches out to those who are experiencing personal problems such as illness, post-surgery, divorce and grief. Wherever my husband Bill and I go, Buster Brown goes. At home he is like all other dogs; he is our therapy dog, making us happy. If God can use a dog like Buster Brown, he can use any of us to love and serve our community.”