Steamboat Springs Ginger, a multicolored Shih Tzu, was an ill-behaved homeless dog that had four homes before Marles Humphrey adopted her. Now, two years later, Ginger is an entirely different dog and helps community members feel happier and more comfortable during a time of stress. Ginger and Humphrey, members of the Heeling Friends pet therapy program, regularly visit the Doak Walker Care Center to brighten residents' days.
"She always brings happiness to everyone there. I love to see (the residents) smile," she said.
Ginger and Humphrey are one of 20 teams affiliated with the Heeling Friends program that serves to bring health benefits and comfort to residents and patients with the regular visitation of well-trained dogs. The teams each have their own places to visit that include Yampa Valley Medical Center, Doak Walker Care Center, senior citizen apartments, Horizons and Soda Creek Elementary School.
The relief a pet brings to a person under distress or needing cheering up is tremendous, Humphrey said.
Humphrey said she and Ginger visited a pianist in intensive care who had a neck injury and had been paralyzed. She said the girl moved her fingers for the first time after having the dog lie next to her.
"It is absolutely awesome," Humphrey said.
Humphrey and Ginger have been visiting the Doak Walker Care Center almost once a week for a year.
"Even people with Alzheimer's will reach out to touch her," she said.
Humphrey said bringing a dog into the hospital or Doak Walker Care Center stimulates people and brings them into the moment. She said some residents keep dog biscuits so they can give Ginger a treat every time she comes for a visit.
The training a dog and handler must go through to be a certified pet therapy team is extensive to make sure dogs are capable of handling the stressful situations often present in hospital settings.
Heeling Friends is a trademarked group that has been approved nationally by the Delta Society as a pet therapy group.
Heeling Friends director Lynette Weaver said once dogs go through the necessary three-month training to be certified, they are asked to make a two-year commitment to establish better relationships with the clients and patients they visit. All pets are initially screened before being selected for the training program.
Weaver said that after dogs are taken for a few visits, they begin to develop a better understanding of how to react around people.
"Dogs will start to notice when they get that bath, that special leash they know they have a job to do," she said.
Dogs have the ability to sense when people are sick or hurting, Weaver said. "They have this sixth sense. It is astounding what they can do," she said.
Weaver said the dogs bring as much relief to the staff as the patients. "Sometimes staff members will say they've had a hard day and will ask for a 'dog hug,'" she said.
She said through visits with her dog, Zirkle, she met some outstanding residents in the area.
"I met some wonderful old ranchers you can sit there for an hour and listen to their stories," Weaver said.
The Heeling Friends teams were not only meant for the sick or elderly; even young children benefit from these friendly and empathetic dogs.
Two Heeling Friends teams visit Soda Creek Elementary for a reading program. The program, titled Reading Education Assistance Dogs, is "designed for those kids who need a little boost in self-esteem," Weaver said. She said students read to the dogs and do not feel self-conscious if they mispronounce a word but continue with the comfort and company of a pet. "It really does do nice things for the kids," she said.
The Heeling Friends dogs are trained to put a paw on a patient or to sit quietly next to a person. The dogs are trained to give students "high-fives" for completing their reading assignments.
Weaver, a professional pet groomer, said her love of dogs drives her to continue the program. She said she recently lost Zirkle, who had been her partner in the Heeling Friends program for the past three years.
"He was a great dog because he had kind of a smile," she said.
Weaver was one of three teams who started the program. She said not having a dog for a Heeling Friends team has allowed her to devote more time to the program.
But Weaver is not going to give up making visits to the hospital or Doak Walker Care Center.
She has a puppy, she said, that will be eligible for the program next fall.