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Comforting canines

Therapy dogs bring joy to residents in senior living facilities, hospice

Three females have become local celebrities with their tireless efforts to assist the elderly at senior living facilities, while also entertaining people of all ages by riding in parades with their various-colored ribbons blowing in the breeze.

John and Carol Carlson, of Marshall, with two of their dogs in the Boxelder Bug Days Parade in September. They were representing Prairie Home Hospice.          Photo by Byron Higgin of the Minneota Mascot

John and Carol Carlson, of Marshall, with two of their dogs in the Boxelder Bug Days Parade in September. They were representing Prairie Home Hospice. Photo by Byron Higgin of the Minneota Mascot

Minde, Nicki and Katie rode in several parades this past summer. Forgive them if they failed to wave back at you.

You see, these three girls are actually registered therapy dogs. And their owners, John and Carol Carlson, of Marshall, are both registered handlers for the Maltese dogs.

“Sometime in the early 1990s, I started reading many reports about how therapy dog visits benefit people,” said Carol Carlson. “Snuggling with or petting a dog is comforting, has a calming effect, and gives people something to talk about.”

Many senior living facilities are using fish and fowl as therapy for the elderly with large aquariums filled with tropical fish and large glass cases or wire enclosures that house various types of birds.

And now therapy dogs are being used more and more in these types of facilities, as well as home hospice organizations.

The Carlsons, who are originally from South Dakota, obtained Minde, 7; Nicki, 4; and Katie, 4; from a close friend in Marshall. The dogs are of the same breed, but each has a different mother.

“We went through a ‘Naming your Baby’ book, looking for names we liked, their meanings, and that were easy for patients to remember,” said Carol, when asked how they came up with the names for their dogs.

Therapy dogs can be any breed or size as long a they are handled and trained correctly.

“The dog needs to pass the ‘Canine Good Citizen’ test,” said Carol. “Like people, they must have a good temperament and socialization skills.”

The dogs seem to enjoy being around the elderly as much as the residents enjoy having them visit. The dogs thrive on the additional attention and can sense when it’s time to go for a visit.

“We have enjoyed working with the elderly and seeing the smiles of the people when they hold the dogs, or have the dogs sitting beside them,” said Carol. “It brings joy to the dogs, the residents and to us.”

AAnd when it’s time for an outing, the dogs seem to know. And it’s difficult for the Carlsons to just take one dog with them and leave the other two home.

“When I am taking one dog with me, each dog wants to go, too,” Carol laughed. “The dogs start prancing, as if they are saying ‘take me, take me.’ Each dog knows before they go for a visit that they will have their hair combed and ribbons put in their hair. Even if they really don’t appreciate getting their hair combed, when I hold up the dog comb, they know they will be going (to visit someone).”

Carol first used a therapy dog in 2000 after researching the subject to find out what type of a smaller dog would be best.

“I decided on a Maltese and my first dog, Lacey, was independent and ran away to the nursing home and did a little visiting on her own a couple of times,” Carol laughed. “We lived very near the nursing home in Marshall. Lacey lived to be 16 years old and visited (senior living facilities) up to the last week of her life.”

The Carlsons’ current dogs are registered through Therapy Dogs, Inc. (now called Alliance of Therapy Dogs), which is based in Cheyenne, Wyo.

John and Carol are also both registered handlers for all three dogs.

The dogs visit the elderly at nursing homes, assisted living and memory care units, as well as some individual homes.

Medical research has shown that therapy dogs improve the mood of patients and give them a sense of well-being, as well as reducing pain and stress levels while alleviating their sense of isolation.

“Research has proven the health benefit after a 10-minute therapy dog visit,” said Carol. “There is a 22 percent drop in pain severity, a 53 percent drop in anxiety, a 48 percent decrease in depression, and numerous other benefits.”

“We have witnessed patients who are anxious and agitated, then start petting a dog and will completely calm down,” she added.

The Carlsons traveled to various facilities with their three dogs to get them acclimated to people as part of their training to become therapy dogs. The dogs would visit for a few minutes and progressively work up to longer visits.

“After the dogs were a year old, they could be tested to be registered as therapy dogs,” said Carol. “We chose Therapy Dogs Inc. I became a tester/observer for this organization two years ago. I have done tests and observations of the dog/handler teams from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls, and from Morris to Worthington.”

One of the Carlsons favorite places to set up a test is the Minneota Manor.

“The staff and patients are so open to having dog visits,” said Carol. “Administration has stated the therapy dog visits benefit everyone, residents and staff alike. The people who have come with their dog to be tested at the Manor walk away with a feeling of what a wonderful nursing home it is.”

And the families of loved ones residing in senior living facilities also appreciate having the dogs around.

“I’m very glad they bring the dogs to the Minneota Manor,” said Chris Hansen of Taunton. “My stepfather doesn’t smile much anymore because of his Alzheimer’s disease. But he smiles a lot when the dogs are around. (Carol) usually lets him hold one of the dogs while she pushes him around in his wheelchair.”

The dogs have been riding on John and Carol’s lap as they drive their convertible in eight or nine area parades a year for the past four years.

Still, Carol insists the dogs aren’t spoiled.

“Maybe not spoiled,” she says. “But they all get very good care.”

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