STORY: James Combs PHOTOS: Provided
Dogs that visit local health care facilities are cute, cuddly, and calming.
It seems like an ordinary day at a local nursing home, but suddenly the facility comes alive. The sounds of paws marching across the tile floor soon follow with conversation and laughter. As assisted living residents bond with the dogs, smiles form across their faces, a sure sign of inner peace.
On this day, several members of the Canine Therapy Teams of The Villages are making a special visit with their trusty canine friends. Handlers and their dogs make the rounds throughout the facility, interacting with residents who vary in age and are affected by a variety of medical conditions. While residents gently stroke the soft fur of the canines, they excitedly share stories about their past pets.
A little love and affection from man’s best friend appears to be just what the doctor ordered.
Canine Therapy Teams of The Villages provides dog-assisted therapy to 14 health care facilities throughout the Tri-County area. The club consists of 37 handler-dog teams who visit facilities on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in teams of four.
“Seeing the response of the people we visit is priceless,” says Howard Horwitz, who formed the group in 2009. “Many people in these facilities do not have relatives or friends who visit them. We offer them exposure to the outside world and bring smiles to their faces when we visit. We’ve also made many friends throughout the years and even attended one woman’s 105th birthday celebration.”
Canine Therapy Teams of The Villages is represented by a variety of breeds, including standard poodles, shih tzus, basset hounds, greyhounds, and German shepherds. Howard owns a beautiful and affectionate 8-year-old Bouvier des Flandres named Dice that enjoys the visits as much as the residents of the facilities do.
“As soon as I put on her therapy vest, she walks to the door very excited and ready to go. What other job could a dog do where it is shown so much affection?” says Howard.
Dogs one year or older are eligible to become therapy dogs; however, they must demonstrate basic obedience skills and pass certain testing criteria. Howard, who is a national tester and observer, administers a series of handling tests and accompanies a dog on at least three visits to health care facilities. This allows him to observe the dog’s temperament and gauge how it gets along with other dogs, as well as strangers. If a dog passes, Howard orders a therapy vest and encourages its owner to register the dog with Therapy Dogs, Inc., a national organization in Wyoming.
“For us, it is an honor to be welcomed into these facilities where people live,” Howard says. “We take that very seriously. All handlers undergo background checks and always carry updated health records of their dogs when they visit a facility. Also, we are adamant about handlers showing up to a facility on time. Their teammates — as well as the staff and residents of these facilities — are counting on them. I’m fortunate to have dedicated members who respect that.”
For more information, call Howard at 352.750.1130.