O'Fallon Progress

Just what the doctor ordered: Canine companionship as complimentary therapy

Unity Hospice volunteers and their therapy dogs visit Shiloh senior community

O'Fallon, IL, residents Marcia Bedard and Sue Ellen Choate are the trainers/handlers for Indy, a Golden Retriever, and Kudos, a Labrador Retriever. The dogs serve as therapy animals, visiting nursing homes, schools, libraries and hospice patients.
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O'Fallon, IL, residents Marcia Bedard and Sue Ellen Choate are the trainers/handlers for Indy, a Golden Retriever, and Kudos, a Labrador Retriever. The dogs serve as therapy animals, visiting nursing homes, schools, libraries and hospice patients.

Dogs can be trained to search for almost anything, from upland game to bombs at airports.

But two local dogs — Indy, a golden retriever, and Kudos, a Labrador retriever — use their noses for another very special purpose. They sniff out people in need of a friend.

“They cheer us up, and it’s so special for them to visit us. It really lifts your spirits,” said Marilyn Cima, a resident at Cedarhurst Assisted Living and Memory Care in Shiloh. “They are so sweet and special, truly. You can’t help but see the compassion in their eyes, and you wonder what they’re thinking. Plus, they are very smart and intuitive — it’s like, in terms of consoling, they know who to come to. I really believe they know who needs it most.”

Two O’Fallon women, Marcia Bedard and Sue Ellen Choate, are the dogs’ trainers/handlers.

“They’re very patient guys,” Sue Ellen said.

Indy was raised to be a leader dog for the blind.

“But once he got to ‘doggie college’ he changed his major and career paths to be a therapy dog — he really loves his work,” Marcia said.

Sue Ellen chimed in, “(Indy) has no work ethic. He’s a golden retriever, through and through.”

One thing I’ve noticed about having therapy dogs or families who bring their pets to come to our community for visits is that people come out of their apartments who usually don’t come out. So those who don’t play bingo, those who don’t go to arts and crafts, that don’t go on shopping trips and outings do come out for the dogs because there’s a relationship attached to it.

Trista McWilliams, Cedarhurst of Shiloh coordinator

Kudos is a different story. He made it to advanced training for Canine Companions for Independence, but suffered complications from hip dysplasia.

“He mainly was for wheelchair assistance for autism, the deaf, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but eventually he will not be able to do a lot of the work that we required of him — to put his feet up on the wall to do light switches or to put his feet on the counter to take a package down or whatever,” Sue Ellen explained.

Thus began his career as a therapy animal.

The Training

The ladies and their dogs visit schools, libraries, military groups, community centers and nursing or assisted living facilities. They also look in on patients of Unity Hospice of Greater St. Louis as part of the company’s “Paws for Patients” pet therapy program.

“We raised them to be service dogs, so from the time they were eight-weeks-old, everywhere we went, they went … This way they get familiar with loud noises, people, environments they otherwise wouldn’t be in, so they can help people who need it, where they need it,” Marcia said.

They cheer us up and it’s so special for them to visit us. It really lifts your spirits.

Marilyn Cima, resident of the Shiloh Cedarhurst Assisted Living and Memory Care community

Marcia began training dogs in the United States Air Force, where she also served as a handler and kennel master. She went on to volunteer to raise puppies for Leader Dogs for the Blind for nearly 20 years before she eventually began volunteering with Unity Hospice. She also raises and trains puppies, keeping them for about 12-14 months each.

Sue Ellen began her involvement with training in 1998 as a volunteer puppy raiser with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), an organization that provides service dogs to people with disabilities. Sue Ellen said she keeps her puppies about 16-18 months. She has raised two pups for Leader Dogs for the Blind and she is currently raising her 11th for CCI.

Making new friends

For three years the ladies and their four-legged friends have been visiting Unity patients all over the metro-east, including O’Fallon, Shiloh, Lebanon and Collinsville, and other surrounding communities, bringing smiles to those in need of some joy.

“As an added bonus, the dogs are usually dressed for the occasion in fun costumes,” said Darcie Carr, volunteer coordinator at Unity Hospice.

For the efforts, Marcia, Sue Ellen, Indy and Kudos were all honored recently honored with the Unity Hospice’s 2016 Volunteers of the Year award.

They are so sweet and special, truly, you can’t help but see the compassion in their eyes, and you wonder what they’re thinking. Plus they are very smart and intuitive — it’s like, in terms of consoling, they know who to come to. I really believe they know who needs it most.

Marilyn Cima, resident of the Shiloh Cedarhurst Assisted Living and Memory Care community

“It’s an honor, but really Kudos and Indy deserve the credit — not us,” Sue Ellen said humbly.

Dawn Whitmire, community relations representative for Unity Hospice, who has often borne witness to enthusiasm the foursome gets from patients, respectfully disagreed.

“No, they’re a package deal. The dogs draw in the patients or residents, making them more approachable, and then the ladies help keep them engaged with their sweet nature. And, gosh, they’re so funny, too, especially when telling stories about the dogs,” Whitmire said.

Their visits are something residents of Cedarhurst always look forward to.

“One thing I’ve noticed about having therapy dogs or families who bring their pets to come to our community for visits is that people come out of their apartments who usually don’t come out. So those who don’t play bingo, those who don’t go to arts and crafts, that don’t go on shopping trips and outings, do come out for the dogs because there’s a relationship attached to it,” said Trista McWilliams, community relations director Cedarhurst. “It’s emotional; there’s feeling and it’s not a task, but it’s also benefiting them with socialization, activity and getting them out from being all alone.”

“Such a blessing”

Research has shown that simply cuddling or petting an animal can reduce anxiety and stress levels, leading to lowered blood pressure and heart rate. The special bond that forms has been shown to improve quality of life mentally, physically and emotionally for patients, especially those who always had pets.

“Being with an animal, like a dog, becomes an emotional experience. I remember I used to take my greyhound everywhere with me, it seemed. And sometimes he just would get so emotional. If I put him in the car, he thought he was going to the veterinarian. He’s like, ‘Where are you taking me now? Oh no!’ just like a small child,” said Cedarhurst resident Pat Grunwald, who used to take her dog for visits just like Marcia and Sue Ellen do now.

“I love animals and have had them all my life, but can’t have pets anymore now. This is such a blessing that Indy and Kudos come visit,” said Annette Fultz, who lives in the Cedarhurst community, donning an ear-to-ear smile.

“Animals, especially dogs like our,s are very special,” Marcia said as she looks at Sue Ellen for approval. “They become a part of our lives and with their own personalities just like people.”

Sue Ellen said, “It’s a pat on the back for all of us when we leave a house or place with the dogs and we just know that we brightened at least one person’s day and helped people come out of their shells kind of.”

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