Sweetwater Creek State Park, Georgia


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"Medical science has affirmed that dogs contribute to driving emotional wellbeing [in humans].    
Considering the importance of dogs in reducing stress levels, the concept of therapy dogs has
been embraced globally. From schools and airports to retirement homes and disaster areas,
trained dogs are widely used to offer calmness, affection, and comfort to people in need."
~ from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs website

After I got Don certified as a therapy dog last summer with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, we were unable due to the Covid pandemic to begin visiting people in traditional pet therapy settings like schools, libraries, or senior residential settings.

As described in the December 20, 2020 journal entry, I mainly took him to outdoor events and pet-friendly stores like Home Depot, Pike Nursery, and pet shops for practice greeting people and spreading puppy love. I continued doing that this year:

This associate at Home Depot is one of Don's most ardent fans.

People in those settings were also feeling the strain of the pandemic and happy to see Don, but I yearned to do more for the elderly and incapacitated who were cooped up in residential facilities and unable to get out or to even receive visitors.

Last December I applied to a large hospice organization, Brightmoor, which is based in a nearby county but has patients in senior facilities all over the metro Atlanta area. In January of this year I went through their orientation process and became an official volunteer, their first pet therapy team.  Orientation on site took twice as long as normal because so many staff members wanted to meet Don! He was a rock star.

Don's a kissy boy. One of the Brightmoor staff gave him this bandana.

Soon one of my friends and her husband also began volunteering for Brightmoor with their two therapy dogs.


I still had to wait until mid-April to start going into assisted living and memory care facilities, but I was able to take Don to senior day centers in two counties several times. The health safety protocols at those locations were less strict than in more confined settings.

That was a start, and obviously some of those seniors could also benefit from Don's gentle puppy love:

More and more opportunities for pet therapy opened up during and after April, 2021. By the end of this year, Brightmoor Hospice staff had introduced me to eight different independent living, assisted living, and/or memory care facilities in four nearby counties.

Don and I got so busy we had to limit the number of visits so we weren't going more than two or three times a week!



At these facilities we usually meet with groups of residents in their common living areas. We sometimes go into individual rooms of people who want to see Don.

During visits I dress him up in one of his many bow ties, a bandana, or holiday apparel like his Halloween lion's mane. That's the "dapper" part of his therapy dog name.


At one of the facilities a staff member who really loves Don sometimes has the memory care residents sing to us during our visits. Don listens intently (below) and enjoys that as much as the patients: 

Don can read human body language pretty well and determine who wants/needs to pet him. Generally, more residents want to interact with Don than staff. Residents tend to appreciate the attention more because they are more cooped up than the people attending to them! However, some staff have been very excited to see Don, and all of the facilities have graciously welcomed us.

We also have very positive interactions with families and friends who were visiting the residents. We are there for everyone.

The next set of photos show some of Don's favorite fellas who live in these facilities:




Greeting mostly sedentary seniors, and especially memory care residents, wears Don out in 40-45 minutes, so we limit our visits to that each time. I can read Don's body language and know when he's "done." I want to keep the visits a pleasant time for him.

So far, he's always eager to get in the car when I tell him we're going to "go say hello to people."


On our very first visit to a large memory care facility in April we had the only negative experience of the year.

We were heading down a long hallway to one of the units when a woman being pushed in a wheelchair came around the corner. She was wearing a large, unusual hat of some sort and she shrieked at Don. Between the hat and the shrieking, he got scared and began barking at her from about 20 feet away. Don rarely barks, and never in person at anyone. I was mortified.

I assumed such an inauspicious start would be the end of visiting at that facility! I comforted Don in an empty room off to the side while the hospice person and facility staff member comforted the resident. After Don settled down we continued on with the remainder of the visit OK.

I found out on the next visit (yes, we were invited back!) that this woman loves dogs. Her shrieks were in happiness of seeing Don, not fear, but when he barked at her she did become fearful.

She turned out to be one of his favorite people at this facility and we made a point to see her each time we went back. It was mutual admiration, as she was the only person this year to give Don a beautiful hand-written thank you note for visiting her. It's a cute picture of a tan dog with a red heart just like Don's ATD tag! I keep that card on my desk in her memory.


In addition to these senior facilities, we were also invited a few times to attend outdoor training sessions with our local Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy raiser group. Don served as a calm distraction dog and role model for the puppies, which was fun.

He also helped fundraise for the school during Walkathon season.

Taking a break between duties as a distraction dog
during guide puppy training at a metro park

Sporting the 2021 Walkathon bandana

Don and I attended several VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) fundraising events this year near Memorial Day and Veteran's Day, where Don's lovable demeanor and puppy kisses draw more people to the booth. Jim has been an active member and officer of the post since we moved here.

The VFW members have sort of adopted him as their mascot. Because of Don's influence, the post donates annually to Southeastern Guide Dogs, with the money designated for the service dog program. Many of Southeastern's highly trained dogs are given free of charge to veterans as service dogs, emotional support dogs, Gold Star Family dogs, or facility therapy dogs. Although Don was released to be a pet, he is also serving many veterans as a certified therapy dog.

Don posing with Jim's military uniform and Viet Nam cap

One of several fundraising events at the Peachtree City farmers' market;
Jim is in the center above, and a little girl is petting a sleepy Don in the photo below.

The next two photos are from this year's 9-11 event in Peachtree City. In the second photo, the woman sitting next to me during the ceremony had reached down to pet Don. Look at his face! Hers was serene, too.


Don can provide comfort in so many different settings!

We also went to the WWII Heritage Days event and Faith & Blue, which featured first responders in our small city.

WWII Heritage Days event: Don with Jim (above) and a re-enactor (below)


Posing by a fire truck at the Faith & Blue community event

From April to December, 2021, Don and I provided more than three dozen pet therapy visits to  hundreds of senior residents, staff, and visitors, and dozens more visits in other settings with people of all ages.

I know from Don's interactions with other adults and kids that he especially loves being with more mobile, active people. They don't wear him out as fast as sedentary elderly residents and they are easier on me, too.

Kisses for an associate at Petsmart

It's important for visits to be enjoyable for both the handler and dog as a pet therapy team so they don't burn out. My goal for 2022 is to find more opportunities at schools and other settings for Don and to visit senior facilities less often.

Next entry: photos and activities of our Lab pack - Don, Casey, and Holly

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don

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2021 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil