Comet, a cuddly canine pal, cheers nursing home residents

Visits from so-called therapy dogs like Comet, a golden retriever, help those in nursing homes stay engaged, active, and communicative.

Courtesy of Cathryn J. Prince
Comet, a golden retriever, poses with Ellen Ashkins, the director for resident life at the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn. Ms. Ashkins has trained Comet to be a therapy dog, a furry 'ball of love' who visits the residents.

Lillian had had many dogs. So when she moved to the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., she was delighted to meet Comet, an 11-1/2-year-old therapy dog.

Once a week a staff person brought the golden retriever to visit Lillian. She’d pet him, brush him, talk to him, and give him treats.

When it came time to light the Shabbat candles each Friday evening at sundown, Comet waited patiently outside the candelabra room. Lillian (who asked not to use her real name) fed him a treat and petted him on her way into the room, and stopped to pet him and give him a treat on her way out.

 “Comet was very special to her and she was very special to him,” says Ellen Ashkins, the home’s Director for Resident Life.

Dogs such as Comet are a vital addition to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and rehabilitation centers, Ms. Ashkins says. Because therapy dogs help residents stay engaged, active, and communicative an increasing number of centers across the country encourage their use.

Ashkins decided to train a therapy dog after she realized how many residents had had their own pets before they moved into the retirement home. So she enrolled in a training session at East Coast Assistance Dogs Inc. in Westchester County, N.Y. Comet, then a 2-year-old puppy, bounded up to her. A match was made.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the location of East Coast Assistance Dogs Inc.]

During his training Comet mastered 60 commands including “my lap,” “snuggle,” “watch me,” “dress,” “kiss,” “hold,” “drop it,” and “turn around.”

That was nearly 10 years ago. Today the pair is almost inseparable. Comet lives with Ashkins; they ride to and from work together. Each morning he dons his work clothes: an olive green bandana.

Labradors are among the commonly used breeds for therapy dogs. All therapy dogs must be well mannered, friendly, and neither aggressive nor shy, says Sandra Lok, who runs Tails of Joy Inc., an animal therapy organization based in Cromwell, Conn.

Ms. Lok often brings dogs to dementia units, rehabilitation units, and assisted living facilities.

“I’ve found that therapy dogs soothe even the most affected patients,” Lok says.

Therapy dogs can also help patients retain and improve certain gross motor skills. For those in rehab, simply brushing a dog can help improve arm extension. Talking to and petting a dog like Comet can help draw out residents who may feel isolated.

“The dogs offer residents and patients an opportunity to touch something soft and furry,” Lok says. “The dogs get them to make eye contact. The animal visits ease loneliness.”

Many organizations exist for people interested in training therapy dogs. The American Kennel Club’s website provides links to therapy groups across the country. It also provides information on training clubs and breeders.

Over his years of service Comet has also connected generations. One elderly gentleman lives in one area of the Jewish home while his wife lives in another area. When their great-granddaughter visits she always asks them to bring her to see Comet.

“It is a wonderful intergenerational visit with the great-grandparents and their great-granddaughter visiting with Comet,” Ashkins says. “He enjoys their visits, and they enjoy his company. It enhances their visits with each other, seeing their smiles and engaging in conversation.”

At 97 pounds Comet resembles a giant teddy bear; and he’s got the sweet disposition to match.

“He’s a ball of love, that’s what he is,” Ashkins says.

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