Romanian street dogs visit Bucharest elderly; dogs find purpose, elderly find friends

They say that a dog is a man's best friend. Alexandrina, an elderly resident in a home in the Romanian capital found not only a new friend, but a new outlook on life after one of the city's infamous street dogs walked into her life.

At an elderly people's home in west Bucharest, four specially trained street dogs make weekly visits offering residents love and company and changing perceptions about strays.

Bucharest's thousands of strays have had a bad rap. They have fatally mauled three people in recent years and the latest death of a 4-year-old boy in 2013 led to a law that orders strays euthanized unless they find a home.

Authorities have been putting down thousands of dogs since the law took effect, while thousands of others have been adopted or put in shelters, but there are still estimated to be tens of thousands of street dogs in Bucharest.

The dogs have found support from celebrities, including actors Hilary Swank, Brigitte Bardot and Steven Seagal, who adopted or visited them. But that has done little to win over city residents who are wary or even downright hostile toward the dogs.

Psychologist for the elderly Diana Dumitrescu was initially skeptical about the project at the care home, but she has changed her mind. "It's very important for them to have something to look forward to; it's a reason to look forward to next Wednesday."

Rici, Tzuca, Mulan and Tibi visit the home once a week. Tibi, 11, is the most popular and sits quietly as he is patted, cuddled and stroked by residents who indulge him with sausages and biscuits.

Alexandrina, who is in her 70s, has seen her life transformed by weekly visits from Mulan, a 4-year-old cognac-colored female stray. "She is a schizophrenic. She didn't go out, she didn't make any visual contact until she met the dogs and from that point on she became functional," Dumitrescu said.

Victor Chitic, a psychologist from animal welfare group Vier Pfoten, the project organizer, says the dogs have been through a rigorous selection process and only dogs that enjoy human company and are not aggressive are chosen.

"When looking at the fight or flight reflex, we make sure they flee rather than fight," he said. Once trained, the animals periodically go through refresher courses where they are trained and disciplined.

"The dogs make me feel safe; they make me feel better about myself and offer me love," said Constantin Ionita, 78, a former economist who enjoys watching ballet on the Internet.

Rici, the youngest dog, is frisky, noisy and friendly, according to his owner, who found him in a plastic bag in a car park two years ago and quickly discovered his potential. "At 1 ½ months, he understood 'sit,'" says Iulia Miu.

But the star is Tibi. "Most residents see themselves in him," she said.

Elena Calugaru, 60, calls Tibi "my boy, my love!" and her eyes well up with tears as she cuddles him.

"I can't express what I feel in words. I have nobody in the world apart from Tibi."