By Erin Palko
Herald Staff Writer
Sometimes, all it takes to cheer you up is to pet a dog or watch it play.
That's why dogs from the Shenango Valley K-9 Academy and the Mercer County Dog Training Club, who have been certified as therapy dogs through Therapy Dogs International, make the rounds at local nursing homes to demonstrate tricks and visit with residents.
"The whole emotional uplift is what the key is," said Jennifer Utlak of Greenville, whose terrier mix, Trinka, and German shepherd, Akia, are therapy dogs. "It's amazing how they can heal through the emotional aspect."
The Shenango Valley K-9 Academy therapy dog team visits John XXIII Home, Bentley House and Ridgewood at the Shenango Valley in Hermitage; Cordia Commons at the Shenango Inn in Sharon; and Orange Village Care Center in Masury.
Rick and Sherry Gereb of Clark, members of the Mercer County Dog Training Club, visit the Bentley House and the Shenango Inn with their therapy dogs -- Lady Victoria, a Shetland sheepdog, and Mikey, a Maltese -- along with other club members. Mrs. Gereb, who teaches a therapy dog class at the dog training club in the former South Pymatuning (Township) Elementary School, also visits Tod Children's Hospital in Youngstown.
Therapy dog visits can raise the morale of nursing home residents, as well as lower their blood pressure, relieve depression and increase social behavior.
"I think they get a sense of belonging to the dog and the dog belonging to them," Gereb said. "I think it's a feeling of self-worth when the dog is on their lap and the dog likes them. They get a lot of satisfaction out of that."
"They think, 'This dog likes me,' " Mrs. Gereb said. "I think that helps a lot of people."
When the dogs go to homes to visit, they either go room to room or to a central location where all the residents gather. The dogs' owners lead them through a simple obedience exercise, then the dogs do tricks. The residents then have the opportunity to pet the dogs.
"We tell them if they're afraid, they don't have to pet them," Ms. Utlak said. "They can just sit and look and it's fun for them."
Sometime the dogs' visits stir up memories of past pets.
"A lot of times when people are visiting, they talk about dogs they had," said Meghan Beighley, owner of therapy dog Chloe, a black Labrador retriever.
"They cry sometimes," Ms. Utlak said.
When Mrs. Gereb visits the behavioral unit at Tod's, she talks to the kids and answers their questions about dogs. The kids also pet her dog and take him for walks around the room.
The residents are not the only ones who enjoy the visits. Staff members also get a kick out of watching the dogs perform and then petting them.
Once the therapy dogs have established a schedule with a home, the residents expect their visits.
"They know that I'm coming on a certain day, and people get to know the dogs," Mrs. Gereb said. "They get used to you coming. It gives them something to look forward to."
The dogs also like making the visits.
"When we put the (therapy dog) collar on them at home, they know exactly where they're going," Gereb said. "They get so excited ... and they know they have to behave."
The dogs who visit the homes are all pets, but they have earned both the Therapy Dog International and American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen titles.
To become a therapy dog, a canine must pass the 14-point AKC good citizen test, which includes accepting strangers and other dogs, walking through a crowd, getting used to wheelchairs and other medical equipment, leaving dropped medication on the ground, staying in place on command and coming when called.
Although the dogs on the team have been taught to interact with both people and other dogs, just like humans, they can get stressed on the job.
"We watch for signs of excessive panting and pacing ... anything from the way they carry their ears and tail," Ms. Utlak said. "You have to really know your dog well."
Dogs who are stressed may tuck their tails, keep their ears down or not accept treats.
Ms. Utlak said any breed of dog has the potential to become a therapy dog.
"Technically, any dog can be a therapy dog as long as they are properly socialized," Ms. Utlak said. "I've been around so many different breeds, I can't say that one does any better then another."
Mrs. Gereb said any dog that is friendly and likes to be around people would make a good therapy dog, regardless of breed. A variety of dogs on the therapy dog team is also a good idea, as some residents might like tiny lap dogs and others may prefer a larger breed dog that can sit next to their wheelchair.
Becoming a therapy dog may be a good alternative for a pet who otherwise would be tied up outside all day, or sent to a shelter.
"There's so many throw-away animals out there," Ms. Utlak said. "There's so much they can offer. It's very therapeutic to have them around."
Paulette Young's black Labrador retriever, Ben, would have been one of those animals sent to a shelter. But the Greenville resident rescued him, and now he's part of the therapy dog team.
Anyone interested in training their dog to become a therapy dog can contact the Shenango Valley K-9 Academy at (724) 342-0708 or the Mercer County Dog Training Club at (724) 962-7400.
Reproduction or retransmission in any form is prohibited without our permission.