Canine visitors lighten up day
Snickering about the little treat she had cupped in her hand, Esther Crouse faced her wheelchair to see the black Labrador swaggering down the hall toward her Tuesday.
But it was too late.
Cinder, the 3-year-old Lab, knows the smell of Fritos.
“Should I give him any?” the Barton Skilled Nursing Facility resident asked, answering after a reflective pause. “I don’t think these are good for you.”
Cinder is one of seven dogs that tours the nursing home every Tuesday and Thursday for the Lake Tahoe Humane Society’s animal assistance visitation program.
“Oh, give him some,” her friend and fellow resident Madeline Meade said.
The debate continued for as long as Cinder’s visit with the two women, but Crouse surrendered her snack, and gave the dog a few corn chips.
“You be gentle there, mister,” owner and handler Bob Henderson said, watching Cinder lick the chips out of the woman’s hand.
“Dogs are my favorite. I’ve had dogs all my life. I had one that was 18 years old — a springer spaniel,” she said.
Quick math calculated the dog’s life in human years — 126.
“I guess I’m trying to beat him. I’m turning 93 (years old) in two months,” Crouse said.
The ages of the 48 Barton long-term residents ranges from 65 to 100. Some suffer from dementia, a brain disease. Others have had strokes.
The majority opt to say hello to the dogs.
The animal assistance visitation program was started in 1963, with the Barton facility welcoming the pets in the last seven years.
It’s not a certified pet therapy program, but if spreading goodwill is the goal, animal assistance accomplishes its mission.
There’s even Missy, the pot-belly pig, rescued by a Barton engineer that makes the hospital rounds twice a year. A cat named Circle used to visit the residents.
The program, which includes Tahoe Manor on its Wednesday schedule, brings in adaptive-tested pets for community outreach. They’re required to pass a canine good citizenship test that includes an orientation and a mastering of the standard commands — heel, sit and stay.
Henderson said he and Cinder joined six other active teams because he “thought it was a really good thing.”
“Residents who don’t communicate with us will communicate with the dogs,” Barton Activities Director Lisa Schenzel said.
Schenzel recalled a short, heartwarming gesture from one resident with dementia who became completely cognizant of her surroundings upon a visit from Cinder.
On Tuesday, she cracked a slight smile when Cinder nudged her hand.
“The dogs help them come to reality,” Schenzel said, explaining how the animals fulfill a need unknown to other people.
Studies have shown that time spent with pets, in particular dogs, may reduce stress, lengthen life and help with bouts of depression. It may even build self-esteem, as a program in Washington in which prisoners train dogs for the disabled has shown.
During the holidays, when depression becomes more pronounced, the absence of loved ones has shown a need for activities among the residents.
“I personally feel many of these people are without close relatives,” said Armstrong, who has gotten to know many of the residents.
But she asserts it’s the continuity of the animal assistance program that adds credence to its importance.
“That’s why we stress to volunteers that we want a long-term commitment,” Dawn Armstrong of the Lake Tahoe Humane Society, said.
Armstrong’s own dog, Candi, helped the humane officer kick off the program. The golden retriever-border collie mix has become well known around Barton.
One dog that visited on Halloween dressed up in a costume.
Animals with a even temperament and high comfort level with strangers work well under these circumstances.
“We don’t want them to come in and be more interested in the trash can than the people,” she said.
— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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