Everything Animals: Therapy dogs are stars at Starr Farm - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Everything Animals: Therapy dogs are stars at Starr Farm

Cora pays a visit to a Starr Farm resident. Cora pays a visit to a Starr Farm resident.
Starr Farm resident Chuck Johnson gets a visit from Therapy Dogs of Vermont. Starr Farm resident Chuck Johnson gets a visit from Therapy Dogs of Vermont.
Cora and owner Deb Helfrich visit Starr Farm residents. Cora and owner Deb Helfrich visit Starr Farm residents.

Burlington, Vermont - November 9, 2010

Starr Farm Nursing Center has gone to the dogs and that's just the way the residents like it.

Cora and her owner Deb Helfrich are on the job with Therapy Dogs of Vermont. They go door-to-door at Starr Farm every week, paying visits to the nursing home's residents.

"When she comes to see somebody she makes them feel like she is there just for them," Helfrich says of Cora while resident Chuck Johnson scratches the dog's head.

"Just by having the presence of a dog that can show them affection and so forth brings back a little life in them," Johnson says of his fellow residents.

Johnson had dogs his entire life before moving to Starr Farm. Now he's their so-called dog ambassador, as evidenced by the pictures of him with numerous pups that cover the mini-fridge in his room.

In addition to weekly visits from Therapy Dogs of Vermont, staff members bring their dogs in and hand them over to Johnson for the day. Johnson takes them to see his fellow residents, knowing the huge void the pups fill.

"They replace something that people lose when they come to homes like this," he says.

People like Bill McAllister, who's on his third stay at Starr Farm. He says the visits from therapy dogs like Cora brighten his day and help things seem a bit more normal.

"They're really great," McAllister says. "Yup, I wish I could have one where I live but I can't."

Studies show that therapy dogs seem to boost the health of the sick and morale of the lonely. That's something Starr Farm's Recreation Services Director Colleen McLaughlin says she witnesses with every therapy dog visit.

"Right off the bat you just see a change in the resident, in their demeanor, the smiles, their affect changes," she says.

McLaughlin remembers a woman who hadn't spoken or even moved until one day when a therapy dog walked by.

"I suddenly saw her leaning forward in her chair as the dog came up to her and was starting to pass and she reached her arm out to want to pet the dog," McLaughlin says.

Helfrich, who serves as the all-volunteer organization's certification and training director, says the therapy dog visits do even more than make Starr Farm feel like a real home.

"I think it just puts life in perspective," she says, by seeing how something as simple as scratching a dog can brighten someone's entire day.

The roughly 250 TDV teams don't just visit nursing homes; they also go to hospitals, schools, libraries and even prisons.

However, Helfrich says that not every dog is cut out to be a therapy dog. She strongly recommends that anyone interested in becoming a therapy dog team with their canine should be trained and certified by Therapy Dogs of Vermont.

For more information, visit www.therapydogs.org.

Rachel Feldman - WCAX News

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