Puppy love

Program gives patients canine companionship
Monday, February 20, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Outside of Candlelight Lodge Residential Care Facility in Columbia, 10-year-old Luke lies down on his stomach in the back of a small sport utility vehicle. He’s very calm until his friend Maia pulls up in a small coupe. As soon as the two see each other, Maia tries to leap into the SUV to join her friend. Both tails swish uncontrollably.

Luke is overjoyed to see Maia, but he can’t play in the parking lot for long. He and his owner, Amanda Warrington, a doctoral student of veterinary medicine at MU, have work to do. They’re here to brighten up days, bring back happy memories and put plenty of smiles on the faces of Candlelight’s residents.

Luke and Warrington have been making regular visits to Candlelight for two years as part of MU’s Pet Assisted Love and Support program.

The PALS program was founded by Theresa Bruemmer, a former MU veterinary medicine student, and put into action by six volunteers from MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. It has sent volunteer dogs to Columbia’s hospitals and nursing homes since 1998.

Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor of nursing and director of MU’s new Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, says research shows interaction with animals has proven socially, emotionally and physically beneficial to humans. Johnson, who has used PALS dogs in the past, has focused such research on area nursing homes. Across the country, hospitals, senior centers and nursing homes are starting to add pets to their lists of therapies.

Richard Meadows, a clinical associate professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at MU and PALS’ faculty adviser, says the main objective of PALS is to provide companionship to help people feel less isolated.

“Humans and dogs have very similar social needs,” Meadows says. “Dogs are pack animals who, like humans, thrive on praise from their superiors. A dog’s pack is usually a group of humans, so interaction between the two is mutually beneficial.”

Meadows explains that not every dog is right for the program. A PALS hopeful must first pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test to prove that it can follow basic verbal commands and remain calm around strangers. Then the dog undergoes behavioral screenings at MU’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Finally, after going on several PALS visits with experienced volunteers, the dog may be taken on future visits by its owner.

Denise Clark, Candlelight’s resident life enrichment coordinator, says residents always look forward to PALS visits.

“They are always out in the lobby waiting to see the dogs,” she says. “It really brings their spirits up.”

Activity assistant Lauri Garman adds that the PALS dogs help residents recapture some of the joy of their youth and put some variety in their day.

All of Candlelight’s approximately 100 residents receive activity calendars detailing what programs will visit every month. At least two PALS dogs and their owners visit twice a week, for about two hours at a time, with an open invitation being given to all residents.

Luke, a yellow Labrador retriever with a strong frame and a dense, soft, wheat-colored coat, was enrolled in the PALS program by Warrington in 2003.

“Luke is really a member of my family,” Warrington says as she guides the dog past Candlelight’s canopied entrance and onto the gray and white berber carpet of the foyer. “And with PALS, I found a fun and useful activity that we could do together.”

Warrington says that when she and Luke used to visit her grandmother in a nursing home, it not only made a difference for her grandmother, but also for everyone in the home, who gathered around to see Luke and tell their own pet stories. When she heard about PALS two years ago, she knew it would be a perfect opportunity for her and Luke to spend time together and help others.

As Luke makes his way to the middle of the foyer, he darts slightly ahead of Warrington. The rattling of his leash has the effect of a doorbell to Candlelight’s residents, who spring their heads upward and smile; company has arrived and suddenly, everyone has a story to tell.

“We had an Airedale terrier that would watch our front gate,” says 89-year-old Alice Parkhill as she circles the palm of her hand around the top of Luke’s head. “When my father left and it was only our mother and us, that dog would hide under the porch. If someone came to the gate, he would bare his teeth and growl. He was basically saying, ‘Don’t you dare come in here!’ He was a great guard dog.”

Thelma Johnston, an 86-year-old Candlelight resident who grew up on a Columbia farm, says her collie Annie never left her sight when she was a child. Whether she was stacking hay or cooking dinner, Annie was always there.

Of course, no trip to Candlelight would be complete without a visit to 86-year-old Martha Spath, the facility’s most prominent dog lover, who is waiting just down the hall. Hers is the very first room Luke stops at.

Spath, a small woman with dark hair and large, wire-rimmed glasses, is a retired physical education teacher who taught in Alton, Ill., and Columbia’s Hickman High School. Seeing Luke, she rolls her wheelchair over to her dresser, where she pulls out a bag of Pup-Peroni dog treats. After giving Luke one of the snacks, Warrington tells her that Luke wants more, but one is enough.

“It’s your fault, fella,” Spath says as she puts the treats away and hugs Luke at the neck. “You got greedy.”

Spath has owned so many dogs in her life that she can’t remember them all. However, she does remember that she never minded spoiling them. She says giving Luke a treat is just like feeding one of her own dogs table scraps.

Pictures of Spath’s most beloved dog, a Peekapoo named Brandy, cover the north wall of her room. The huge collection of little stuffed dogs sitting on her bed even includes one that she identifies as her favorite because it looks like Brandy. She says a PALS volunteer once brought a dog that looked like Brandy and had to keep it away from her because she might’ve kept it.

Luke’s last stop of the day is a visit to Beryl and Eunice Gerdes, a married couple living in Candlelight. As the two run their hands over his back and the top of his head with long, firm strokes, they also tell stories about their old pets.

Eunice snickers as she recalls the time one of her cats, Yellow Wally, got his head stuck in a can of salmon and her father had to pull him out.

As far as dogs go, Eunice says she has always thought that they have instinctive feelings and can sense the presence of certain people.

Beryl couldn’t agree more because he knows this from personal experience.

“When I came back from my Navy service, my mother told our dog Pooch that I was home, and it barked differently than it ever had before,” Beryl says as an ear-to-ear grin pulls up his round cheeks and narrows his eyes. “The sound of that bark was really touching.”

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