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Blind Therapy Dog

June 3, 2020

As Pat Ward drifts from one window to another, she holds a sign to the glass, hoping the residents will notice her arrival rather than startling them with a knock. The poster features a red heart with a smiling face and closed eyes, an homage to the four-legged star of these visits.

Baby, an 8-year-old therapy dog, is blind and had her eyes removed long ago. She doesn’t hear well, either. She has heart issues and survived cancer. But her gentleness offers warmth. Baby has become a beloved guest at Island City Assisted Living in Eaton Rapids, Mich., a small town about 20 miles from Lansing. After six years of weekly visits, she is a familiar face, even if residents can only peer through the glass. Sometimes they’re already waiting.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic upended everyday life in the United States, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities prohibited visitors to protect their residents, who are part of the most vulnerable age group. For about a month, Baby’s visits were on hold.

A few residents asked Kelly Klassen, the director of activities, when they could see Baby again. Klassen told them: “I’m really sorry, but I don’t know.”

Ward then had the idea to visit through the windows. She and Baby would never step inside the facility, and they could adhere to physical distancing guidelines as they walked around the perimeter. Residents can open their windows a bit, and Ward stands a few steps away while wearing a mask.

“We really needed to do something, because they missed her,” Ward said. “And we missed them.”

Baby’s usual visits are included on the community’s activities calendar. But now the times vary depending on weather. Baby, a brown and white Brittany with floppy ears, roams on a long leash. Ward brings her closer to the window, even though the residents can’t reach down to her fur.

“But they’re able to still talk to her and love her,” Ward said. “And they still smile about it.”

Ward pets Baby, so maybe, she said, it feels as though the resident provided that affection.

Since March 11, Island City hasn’t allowed outside groups, families or friends into their facility. Chief executive Sheryl James said the community of 38 residents hasn’t had any coronavirus cases, which remains the top priority.

Before the pandemic, musicians performed for the community about eight times per month. Residents gathered in the living room or in the 1950s-themed diner with checkered floors and red counters. Families now communicate with their loved ones virtually or through the windows.

Rather than the daily exercise circle, which Baby sometimes visited, the community’s staff members go room to room to lead residents through breathing exercises and stretching from the doorway. The staff distributes a bright orange hall pass, so one at a time, everyone can stay active and visit friends at a distance.

Even with the creative alternatives, the past 2½ months have been different and unfamiliar. Baby’s weekly visits resemble the usual routine, and that provides comfort.

Ward, a retired sales manager, began working with therapy dogs 14 years ago. She had a friend who lived in a nursing home, and sometimes when she visited, she watched a therapy dog interact with the seniors. Ward kept her eyes on the residents’ faces, rather than the dog. She noticed their genuine happiness and how a dog could have a positive impact on their days.

“Once you’re with a therapy dog, it makes me feel like I could do something for the dog,” Ward said. “And then, of course, the dog does so much for the other people.”

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Ward named her second therapy dog with her future work in mind. When dogs visit seniors, Ward noticed they frequently call male dogs “Buddy” and female dogs “Baby.”

Baby passed the tests to become a therapy dog, but she hardly needed to be trained. She is naturally gentle and has what Ward describes as a “simple, sweet soul.” She moves at a slow pace, and if she bumps into a wall, she continues unfazed.

Because of Baby’s health issues, human resource director Stephanie Hall said she is a “perfect fit for this community because she shares some of the same challenges.”

At Island City, residents hold Baby’s head and talk like they’re old friends. Her nose lifts toward their faces. Many tell stories about their childhood pets. The window visits have kept that connection intact.

“It reminds them of when they were younger, and those are happy times,” James said. “That’s so important to all of our residents.”

Baby attends many of the community events, in addition to her visits. She dresses up for trick-or-treating when kids stop by for Halloween, and Island City holds a birthday party for her in August. A couple of weeks ago, an artist turned a photo of Baby into a sketched outline. Ward made copies for the residents to color. Anyone who participated will soon choose from an assortment of prizes, such as bracelets and wheelchair bags that Ward’s mother made.

The first time Baby visited during the pandemic, a staff member walked along the hallways to tell residents who waited for them outside their window. Still overwhelmed with excitement later in the day, a couple of residents said to Klassen: “Baby was here today! Did you see her?”

Baby relies on her sense of smell, and she recognizes this community. She can’t feel the residents’ touch or navigate the familiar halls, but she senses that she is doing her job. Sometimes, the outdoor light makes it difficult to see into the rooms, especially if the residents can’t walk toward the window. But Ward still watches their reactions when they see Baby. Separated by glass, their excitement and their joy remain.

“For a little part of time,” Ward said, “it takes away the isolation and it takes away the pain.”

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