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Dog saved from shelter will ease loneliness for nursing home residents

COAL GROVE — Sunset Nursing Center in Coal Grove gets new residents all the time but one who made his first appearance last week is getting considerably more attention than most.

Baxter, a 2 1/2-year-old black Labrador retriever, was welcomed as the center’s new therapy dog.

Teresa Huddle, who often visits the nursing home with her family’s therapy pets, learned the staff wanted a full-time pet of its own and helped find one by looking on the Internet for possible therapy dogs. She found Baxter at the Goodwill Service Dog Training Center in Canton. Local donors stepped forward to help pick up the $500 tab for Baxter: The Loyal Order of the Moose 1847, of Ironton, Lawrence County Chapter 761 of the Military Order of the Purple Hearts, Southern Ohio Behavioral Health and Dr. Steven and Leslie Milleson.

Still others sent gifts when friends threw a “dog shower” for Baxter recently.

“Baxter and I have already started bonding,” activities director Jane Brown said. “He’s just a gorgeous dog. He got to see the residents for the first time ( Thursday) and they absolutely love him.”

Brown has a point. Sunset administrator Jay Pate said even patients who are distant with humans have found Baxter a non-threatening, non-judgmental buddy.

“We have one resident who almost never smiles. He was in his room when he saw Baxter coming down the hall. He didn’t just smile, he was beaming,” Pate said.

Dogs serve as more than just companions

Sullivan can pick up a can of hair spray and deliver it intact to a waiting hand. He can pick up a credit card with his mouth and even a dime off the floor. And he can wag his tail when praised. And as the “demonstration dog” for the Goodwill Service Dog Training Center in Canton, he can wow a crowd of onlookers, something he did Thursday during a meeting with 4-H students and their families Thursday at the Ohio University Southern Campus and Community Center.

But more than impressing people, trainer Beth Iler said Sullivan and other service dogs like him can perform tasks that make the life easier for handicapped people.

“We train dogs to do it for you. There are people who were never able to live along before, never able to go to the mall or do other things on their own, they can’t. But they get a service dog and they find they have freedom,” Iler said. “We’ve not given dogs enough credit in the past. We’re only starting to realize all they can do,” she said.

Goodwill trains both therapy dogs, meant to provide companionship to shut-ins, and service dogs, trained to fetch items, help dress and undress their masters, turn on and off lights and numerous other daily chores that some people with disabilities find difficult or even impossible.

Iler said most of the dogs she and fellow trainer Leslie Garofalo accept are retrievers because their mouths are soft— an important consideration since they pick up items with their mouths—and they are instinctively good-natured. Some dogs are obtained from animal shelters, others from people who have decided not to keep their pets. Dogs first go to a foster family for basic household training and then to Iler and Garofalo for more specific training. Since the program began in 1998, it has trained 18 dogs.

For more information about the service dog training program, call (330) 454-9461, ext. 1053.