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Therapy Pets | Summer 2007 Out Here Magazine

Rosalie Jackson, a Wayne Center resident, delights in visits from furry friends such as Mikey, a very friendly Shih Tzu.

The touch of a wet nose or furry paw brings joy

By Karin Miller
Photography by Matt Stanley

When Sharon Eisenhour asked the man wheeling his chair down the hallway nursing home how he was doing, he simply shook his head despondently.

Then Bandit, her Border collie mix, put his paws on the man's lap and licked his face. The man looked up and said, "I'm much better now."

That kind of response is one reason they've volunteered for more than seven years in the Pals for Life program, Eisenhour says.

Pals for Life, of Wayne, PA, is among several programs throughout the country that send volunteer pets and handlers into nursing homes, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and homes for the disabled.

Animals in some programs receive specialized training, while others simply have the right disposition.

For 22 years, Pals for Life has accepted animals ranging from rabbits to bearded dragons, says founder Paula Kielich.

Animals are a welcome distraction for people who are disabled, in pain, depressed, or living away from home, Kielich says.

"One of the most important aspects of what we provide is fun," she says. "The animals, just by being themselves, are goofy. You never know what they're going to do and you can't help but laugh at them because of the situations they get themselves in or just because they're so darned adorable you can't stand it."

Mary E. Coon, 85, loves the pet visits to the Wayne Center nursing home. "It takes away the drearies," she says.

The dogs also remind her of her own pets, including a puppy given to her son for shoveling a sidewalk and a 21-year-old Pekingese now living with a friend.

Visiting animals often stimulate conversations among residents, staff, and handlers, Kielich says.

"Before we walk in, you could hear a pin drop, but as soon as we go through the door, it's like you've waved a magic wand," she says. "They come to life."

Residents literally wait at the door when the pets come to visit, says Tricia Shelton, Wayne Center's recreation director.

"A lot of people don't realize the joy that stroking a dog's ears or having them lick their face brings to someone in a long-term care facility," she says.

The visits are a joy for her, as well, Eisenhour says.

"I thought it would be kind of depressing," she says. "But every single time, you come out happy — happy that you went, and happy that someone who might not have been that communicative actually said something that day because they were petting your dog."

Bandit, who wears bandanas and greets residents with high-fives and sloppy kisses, jumps through a hula hoop, dances on his hind legs, and catches popcorn in his mouth during visits.

"He loves it," Eisenhour says, with a laugh. "You can really tell that at the end of it he has this attitude like, 'Yeah, I did a good job.'"

Karin Miller writes in Franklin, TN.