By Friday afternoon, most of us already are focused on the weekend. But when Dianne DaLee’s iPhone starts chirping at 2:40 p.m., it’s time to start her other job. For the past two years, DaLee and her rescued therapy dog, Kayla, have spent their afternoons spreading cheer to residents at Delmar Gardens assisted living facility in Smyrna, Georgia.
“I do this because it makes them feel so good,” she said. “They get to know Kayla and me, and they are so excited to get a visitor each week. Kayla makes them smile.”
Scientists have studied the value of pet therapy in lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety. DaLee has seen those positive results firsthand each Friday. Without a doubt, Kayla serves as the highlight of Delmar Gardens’ happy hour.
Newly adopted grandparents love spoiling Kayla with dog treats. Some even try to slip in a few unapproved snacks — slices of pizza, chicken wings, tacos, or even French fries — but DaLee maintains a watchful eye as she gracefully maneuvers around wheelchairs and walkers to greet each person. Unless it’s something potentially harmful to Kayla, she allows extra treats and modifies the dog’s diet at home on Fridays. Fortunately, most residents are content with giving Kayla nuzzles and plenty of rubs. Kayla evokes memories of dogs they once had, a gentle reminder of unconditional love that comes at the end of a leash. Every time she arrives, one resident exclaims, “There’s my dog!” DaLee said.
Residents see Kayla and light up. Often they simply pet Kayla and smile without saying a word.
DaLee was well aware of Kayla’s therapeutic skills. As president of Atlanta Boxer Rescue, she has helped hundreds of dogs find forever homes. When Kayla arrived at the rescue in March 2013 with a severely broken leg, DaLee agreed to foster the pup. Caring for Kayla would serve as a welcome distraction after recently losing her beloved Boxer Simba to cancer. Shortly after meeting Kayla, DaLee learned the dog’s injury was so severe that it required amputation. During Kayla’s recovery period, DaLee watched the sweet, sensitive dog patiently tolerate adoring kids and neighbors. She had the perfect traits to be a therapy dog. DaLee decided to pay it forward by training Kayla and registering her through Alliance of Therapy Dogs, formerly Therapy Dogs Inc.
“You need a dog who has a pretty relaxed personality; one who is happy to sit there and get petted and is not going to overreact to things,” DaLee said. “The calm disposition is key, and you have to have them well trained.”
Therapy dogs visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes, or other facilities where people may benefit from their presence. Certification through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs also includes liability insurance, which is renewable each year. The alliance notes that any breed of dog – or mixed breed – can qualify for certification. Requirements include a temperament test that resembles the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test. After passing the test, dogs must be observed during three separate visits to a medical facility. Kayla passed with flying colors.
In addition to her visits to Delmar Gardens, DaLee and Kayla are members of a group called CAREing Paws, which conducts visits to nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, and schools. The 6-year-old pooch has even visited DaLee’s church and an elementary school, where 25 kids happily descended on their furry new friend.
“Some of the parents asked, ‘Is she okay with that?’” DaLee said. Her response, “‘Yup. That’s what she does.”
After a few hours at Delmar Gardens, Kayla comes home each Friday and has dinner with her sister, Pixie, and then she’s done for the day. As president of Atlanta Boxer Rescue and owner of her own graphic and website design firm, DaLee’s projects may bleed over into Friday evenings or Saturday morning, particularly when the organization is planning its annual Boxerstock music festival. But when Kayla hears the sound of chirping of crickets on DaLee’s iPhone, she comes running into the room, ready to start her job as a therapy dog.
“They love her,” DaLee said. “It just makes a big difference in their lives — and it’s not a huge chunk of time out of my day when you think about it. They miss their own dogs so they’re thrilled to be able to see Kayla each week.”
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About the author: Morieka Johnson lives in metro Atlanta with her husband, two stepdaughters, and Louie, their high-energy puppy. She enjoys writing about dog health, toys, and training. Morieka shares more of their exploits on www.SoulPup.com.