Sharing his furry smile
Therapy dog visits Golden Years
December 08, 2010 | 08:56 AM
Walworth — Sometimes it only takes a smile to make someone's day. Other times it just takes the wag of a tail.
Dakota, a German Shepherd mutt, wags his tail every other Wednesday at the Golden Years of Walworth, sharing his furry smile to residents.
As a therapy dog, Dakota allows residents to pet him, cuddle up next to him and sometimes he even gives residents kisses.
Residents enjoy talking about the color of Dakota's coat and how white his paws are, said his owners, Nancy and Scott Doherty, Linn Township.
"He supports them emotionally," Nancy said. "He is making someone's dull day into a somewhat pleasant day."
Golden Years residents also seem to like when Dakota visits.
"I certainly do. And Nancy and Scott, are so nice I don't know if I'm happier to see them or the dog," Golden Years resident Naomi Koehler said.
The Dohertys, who are known around Golden Years as Dakota's parents, rescued him from Lakeland Animal Shelter about nine years ago. They describe their pooch as a German Shepherd purebreed mutt.
Dakota has been visiting Golden Years for more than 6-1/2 years. During each visit, Dakota typically makes contact with between 12 and 15 residents.
Dakota was recently recognized as an Active Outstanding Volunteer by Therapy Dogs International, an organization that works with all breeds of therapy dogs, for making 150 visits to Golden Years.
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Nancy and Scott said they were looking for volunteer opportunities and decided they wanted to involve Dakota with their efforts.
Dakota doesn't visit residents with a fear of dogs, but Koehler doesn't believe anyone should fear Dakota.
"You need to be more afraid of us people than we need to be of you," Koehler said as she petted the animal.
Becoming a therapy dog
From pitbulls to Chihuahuas, any canine breed can become a therapy dog.
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To become a therapy dog, animals are required to take a test, which examines the animals ability to obey orders, act calmly and even resist tasty treats.
"His temperament had to be evaluated. He has to show manners, can be calm and control himself in these situations," Scott said. "He doesn't jump, he's not rude and he will obey orders."
Dakota also doesn't often bark at the retirement home, but did when Scott asked him to speak. Koehler was surprised to hear Dakota bark.
"I thought he had a problem with his throat," Koehler said.
To demonstrate Dakota's obedience skills, Scott fed the dog a treat and placed another treat on the ground. He then walked Dakota around the treat several times, making sure the dog could resist his urge to eat it.
Scott explained Dakota needs to know he cannot eat what he finds on the floor. At a nursing home, a prescription pills or other items that could harm Dakota could be on the floor.
It also would require an effort to startle Dakota. The Dohertys describe the dog as "bomb-proof."
"There is no negative reaction when something happens out of the blue," Nancy said.
Nancy said if she drops pans on the floor in the kitchen, the only reaction she will receive from Dakota is funny look. At the retirement home, Nancy dropped her clipboard onto the ground, which created a loud noise.
Dakota heard the noise and slowly walked toward it to scope out what happened.
Last week, Dakota's ability to stay calm during tense situations was put to the test.
On Monday, two tornadoes touched down in rural Walworth and Linn Township, damaging four homes, including one of the Dohertys' neighbors. During the storm, the Dohertys said Dakota kept his cool.
Although tornadoes and loud noises won't startle Dakota, there is one thing that gets his attention.
"The only thing that rattles him is squirrels and chipmunks," Nancy said.
Dakota isn't the only one in the family who needs training, Scott and Nancy also had to receive certifications to own a therapy dog.
"Our job is not to put him in a situation where he could get hurt and he could have an adverse reaction," Nancy said.
Dakota doesn't only provide therapy to the elderly residents at the retirement home.
It is difficult to imagine a dog helping students who struggle with their reading skill, but Dakota does.
Dakota visits Star Center Elementary School in Pell Lake and students who struggle with their reading skills, read out load to Dakota as he listens.
Scott said this helps students because Dakota won't interrupt them and correct their mistakes.