CAPE CORAL, Fla. — The minute Laura Diachenko hands Jack’s leash to Roger Wieland, they are off on their daily adventure at Cape Coral’s Gulf Coast Village.
“Hi, Jack,” an employee says as the two amble down the hall.
Jack — a miniature Australian shepherd — stops, gets a tap on the head and then he and Wieland are off to their next greeting at the independent living and skilled-nursing facility.
They make a couple of more visits before Wieland, 91, a retired veterinarian, and Jack, 3, enter a sitting Tai Chi class. The man who gave Jack a treat two days before gets the first visit but within a couple of minutes, the pup has gone from resident to resident to say good morning. Not everyone pets him but most do. Whatever their mental condition, the residents feel Jack’s presence and calmness.
Then he goes next to Wieland’s chair, lies down and takes a -— sorry Jack – —cat nap.
“This is connecting,” said a smiling Hilmar Fuchs, the Tai Chi instructor and martial arts master. “Humans and their environment. That’s what makes this so very, very important.”
Dogs not only are a big part of families but for years they’ve been considered great therapy and not just for the elderly. They help college students who are either away from home or stressed as well as those with post traumatic stress disorder or physical or mental handicaps.
“A veteran came in and he would walk in the door, never say ‘Hi’ and walk to where he was supposed to go and not interact,” said Mary Chaffee, a PAWs handler, ambassador and a volunteer. “Now we’re friends on Facebook. He drives himself here and he’s going out in public. He said, ‘I’m excited about doing things again.’“
Chaffee said depressed people who stay in bed will get out to walk the therapy dogs, while children improve their reading skills when a dog is around.
Dogs Don’t Judge
“Some kids don’t like to read aloud because they make mistakes and other kids laugh,” she said. “Dogs are non-judgmental. I’ve talked to principals and students excel in reading because they’re able to overcome that fear of making a mistake.”
It only makes sense that dogs are to be celebrated. June 21 is National Dog Party Day, and this week is Take Your Dog to Work Week.
“Every day is a take Jack to work day,” said Diachenko, a senior living counselor at Gulf Coast Village. “When I took a vacation in the Georgia mountains with Jack, everyone asked Roger, ‘Where’s the dog?’ If he sees employees, he’ll get excited and jump. With older persons, he won’t. He also knows who’s not a dog person.”
Diachenko first saw the benefits of this therapy 23 years ago when a dog visited her when she was in the hospital.
After taking a position at Gulf Coast Village 4 1/2 years ago, Diachenko approached executive co-directors Kevin Ahmadi and Jennifer Grimes and asked if they’d be open to a therapy dog. They said if the dog went through training and certification and was licensed, they would embrace it.
The Need for Touch
After reading about how important it is for most people to be hugged or touched a day, it reinforced to Diachenko how much a therapy dog can help, especially if one of the residents recently lost a spouse.
“The thing about animals is that they have an uncanny ability to live in the here and now,” said Tom Hafer, the chaplain and physical therapist at Gulf Coast Village. “They’re not burdened with yesterday or tomorrow. With our residents, a lot who have memory issues, they are that way, too.
“I believe God calls us to live in the moment. That’s all we have. And I see the residents. They light up because the dog lights up. And that touch, that tactile stimulation is a way for us to say, ‘I affirm you. You’re real. I see and feel you.”
Jack and Wieland have developed a strong bond since he began coming to Gulf Coast Village as a puppy. Jack often will go on his back where Wieland will bend down give him a belly rub.
Wieland, who treated every animal from cows to snakes to farmers — “They didn’t like people doctors” — and had a number of pets in his native Michigan, said he’s never had a Jack.
“I’m jealous of my wife, Irene,” he said. “She’s taken to him pretty well.”
Irene Wieland calls Jack her other child. She brought up four.
“I came down to make sure I wasn’t forgotten,” Paula Wieland said. “He’s incredible. He picks up his own leash. He’s just a real cool dog.”
LaVerne Webb, a resident, added, “Everyone loves him. Dogs are wonderful at therapy. They know, just like cats, they know.”
When Diachenko got Jack, she knew she was getting breed that’s smart and active.
“He needed a job and something to carry in his mouth,” she said. “He helps me get the mail. At work, he has his vest on and is ready to go.
“I think it is a healing thing. People with memory issues say, ‘You found my dog.’ We also had a woman who was anti-dog. I brought Jack in and it wasn’t long before she had him on her lap. I sent pictures to the families. They said, ‘Never, ever, would we have thought my mother would embrace that.’
“Everyone just gravitates to Jack.”