"It's her mission to do this. She has a passion for people," Marsha Borovich of Bethesda explains. Borovich, a real estate agent and retired teacher, is talking about "Sky," her border collie, while they visit patients and residents at Emerald Pointe Nursing and Rehabilitation. Sky is a certified pet therapy dog that makes weekly rounds saying hello, wagging her tail, lapping up the "oohs" and "ahhs" as people reach out to touch her and doling out some kisses along the way.
In the activities room, a group of seniors in wheel chairs are stretching to music-until Sky walks in and takes the spotlight. One gentleman comes to life and excitedly waits his turn to pet the dog. Activities Director Joyce Stimpert says that this patient rarely responds to anything, but he lights up and smiles around Sky. His wife told Stimpert that he had a dog before coming to Emerald Pointe, and he misses him terribly.
In the Ohio Valley and across the United States pet therapy is becoming main stream. Studies, surveys and facility staff point to numerous benefits of animal visits. In a Therapy Dogs International (TDI) study, 92 percent of the respondents noted "positive mood alterations" as a result; more than 80 percent also noticed "increased socialization," "increased verbalization" and "increased alertness" from the visits. Additionally, facility staff reported benefits for themselves as well: increased morale, a break in the routine and improved communication with their patients.
Russell, a resident at Emerald Pointe, poses with Sky. Russell’s granddaughter, Dr. Christine Stephen of Barnesville Veterinary Service, rescued Sky from euthanasia after a farm accident.
"It lifts residents' spirits," Stimpert adds, echoing other research results. "They look forward to it. It's very nurturing." Pet therapy helps patients combat loneliness and ease anxiety and pain by focusing their attention on the animals.
Lisa and Randy Marple, of Shadyside, have been bringing their two Samoyeds, "Strider" and "Talani," to Cumberland Pointe Care Center near St. Clairsville once a month for more than five years. "We were slowly retiring Strider from his show career and wanted to share the dogs with other people. They have such sweet dispositions and love for everyone. We keep coming for the friendships we and the dogs have developed." The dogs were certified for pet therapy by their trainer and former handler, Peggy Baluch in Cleveland.
Training is important for the safety of the dogs, patients and owners. Randy Moore is a local trainer for TDI and has certified more than 20 dogs over the past six years. "You have to understand how a dog reacts. He could be scared by wheelchairs or if someone drops something in the hall. A patient may have dropped pills on the floor. Our dogs are trained to leave it and not eat something that could be dangerous for them." Certifying the animal through TDI also provides liability insurance as part of the program.
Moore says he got into pet therapy because he thought it was a worthwhile program and saw the effects it had on patients. The course is usually six to eight weeks long, and when a dog is ready he administers the certification test. Owners are encouraged to pursue a second designation, the AKC "Good Citizen." For information on TDI and trainings, Moore can be reached at (740) 391-2740.
Is there a "best" breed of dog suited to pet therapy? Moore says no. His aging boxer mix is in semi-retirement from the program. He got her at the animal shelter and recommends shelter dogs when considering a pet purchase. "They make really good dogs. The breed doesn't matter as long as the dog's friendly."
"Maya," a golden retriever, and "Haley," a Newfoundland, are two new therapy dogs on the block at Cumberland Pointe. Owner Christine Kuhar says they visit several places in West Virginia and Ohio and were certified through the Upper Ohio Valley Obedience Training Club (www.uovotc.org.) Kuhar is considering keeping several of Maya's 10 new puppies to train as service dogs for the blind or disabled.
Wendy Swisk, activities director at Cumberland Pointe, expanded the pet therapy program because residents love it.
"They touch; they interact; they reach out; they smile. Residents unable to speak do respond to the dogs."
Marceline, a resident at Cumberland Pointe, tells Swisk that seeing the "big, white dogs" (Talani and Strider) brings back memories of a Siberian husky she had when she was a young girl, and she reminisces about happy days with her family.
Swisk smiles, "The dogs bring 'life' into the nursing home."
Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.