Red Bank, NJ – “Willie Wonka” trots down the hall of Riverview Rehabilitation Center at Riverview Medical Center and is greeted with smiles and cheers. Willie is there to do his job and he gets right to work, visiting 79 year-old patient and former Hollywood comedic legend, Bob Altman of Middletown, N.J. Willie is not unlike the many dedicated volunteers who regularly take time out of their busy schedules to brighten patients’ days at Riverview. There is, however, one major difference – Willie is a chocolate-colored Standard Poodle.


Willie Wonka, pet therapy dog at Riverview Medical Center visits 79 year-old patient and former Hollywood comedic legend, Bob Altman of Middletown, N.J.

Willie Wonka isn’t your average therapy dog, as shared by Leslie Culver, dog trainer and owner. Willie’s story starts as a very ill pup born with a bad lung and a bad prognosis. “No veterinarian would treat his lung disorder, so he was passed around and crated for the first 11 months of his life. He was unadoptable and ready to be euthanized,” explains Culver. “I had just lost a dog, was heartbroken, and totally unprepared to commit to loving another pet. After some coaxing from Adopt-A-Pet to just consider fostering Willie and a visit to meet him, it was obvious that he needed a person to call his own. He stole my heart and healed it. With love, attention, and exercise to build his stamina, he has progressed consistently and is now a fine, happy dog.”

If Willie isn’t your average therapy dog, neither is patient Bob Altman. Bob is a former stock broker better known as the outrageous comedian “B. Altman” in the 60’s and 70’s. Bob was a long-time personal friend of the late George Carlin (just before George passed he sent Bob a letter signed “Your Best Pupil”). Bob appeared doing his standup numerous times on the Johnny Carson Show and The Merv Griffin Show. In addition to his comedy, Bob also appeared in a role in the iconic film “Goodfellas,” and appeared in several episodes of the “Richard Pryor Show.”

“Seeing Willie immediately put a smile on my face,” says Altman. “Interacting with Willie confirmed that all dogs truly do go to heaven.”

The weekly visits are part of a new animal-assisted therapy program at Riverview. The Pet Therapy program provides patients comfort and companionship in a way that increases emotional well-being and promotes healing for patients.

“We are excited to be able to provide a welcomed break in the day for patients, many of whom are in the hospital for long-term care,” says Diane Chick, supervisor of Volunteer Services at Riverview Medical Center. “Interacting with the dogs has a noticeable impact on their mood and enhances their well being.”

Willie visits the hospital through a partnership with Therapy Dogs International, Inc., a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey. The program at Riverview Medical Center is coordinated through the hospital’s volunteer program, which is overseen by Chick.

Research by the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) suggests that visits with animals may improve patient outcomes, decrease length of hospital stay, help with confusion, depression, and manage pain symptoms. Interaction with animals has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, increase sensory stimulation, inspire a sense of purpose, increase social interactions with staff, and reduce loneliness by creating a sense of companionship.