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Therapy Dogs International Volunteers: Sit, Share

Debbie Belk (left), a resident of Gateway Villas and Gateway Gardens, offers Joe a treat during a recent visit to the facility. Joe belongs to Nancy Ebeling (right), who brings the dog along with his pal, Frankie, to assisted-living facilities, hospitals, and similar places as part of Therapy Dogs International. Staff photo by Jennifer Fierro

MARBLE FALLS — Joe couldn’t wait any longer so he hopped on a table for a more direct route to Debbie Belk, who petted him then gave him a treat. Joe, in turn, rubbed noses with Belk.

Belk couldn’t get enough of Joe or his friend, Frank.

Joe, a 7-month-old miniature American shepherd, and Frank, an 8-year-old English springer spaniel, were visiting the residents at Gateway Villas and Gateway Gardens. The two dogs belong to Nancy Ebeling, who is part of Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing, and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and wherever else a dog's companionship is needed. The group has been around since 1976.

“I can’t have a pet,” said Belk, adding that weekly visits from the dogs help her be more social, give her a little bit of exercise, and simply offer companionship, even if it’s just for an hour. “I love dogs.”

Researchers believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions toward pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress.

Oxytocin is released in parents each time they look into the eyes of their babies. It's also released when people play with or hug their dogs.

“It’s been proven over and over that bringing dogs to a residential facility lowers the blood pressure,” Ebeling said. “It makes (people) happy. It gets us out, it breaks up the monotony. It’s great for somebody in long-term care.”

Ebeling started bringing dogs to these facilities more than 20 years ago. The visits started with her daughter, Paige, who brought dogs for visits as part of her Burnet 4H Club project. Once Paige graduated, Mom took the lead. Joe is the most curious of her two dogs, Ebeling said. He enjoys going through trash cans. Frank is a seasoned veteran. He often sits still and waits to be called on.

Ebeling is looking for more partner families willing to share their dogs with assisted-living facility residents and hospital patients. Dogs in the program are taught how to sit, stay, wait patiently, and leave things alone. They don’t have to be purebred. Some of the program's pooches are rescues from local shelters.

She said the training part isn’t difficult, and she can help. Dogs must be 1 year old before they can obtain certification. The testing is done in Amarillo.

“You’re covered by insurance if they get tested,” she said.

The top requirement is a calm dog, much like Frank, Ebeling said.

“He’s gentle. He’s very empathetic,” she said. “He can tell if somebody is depressed. He soaks it all in.”

Frank also has a keen sense for knowing when someone needs help. Ebeling recalled the two walking down a hall of one facility when Frank pushed open a door and saw a resident lying on the floor after tripping. Ebeling quickly alerted the staff.

Ebeling said once her hour is up, which is about the length of Frank and Joe’s attention span, the hardest part is saying goodbye to the residents.

“This is such a rewarding thing to do,” she said. “Debbie gives me the biggest, sweetest hugs. We’ll go up and down the hallways and see who else needs a visit. We desperately need more dogs. The main thing is a calm dog.”

Call Ebeling at (830) 265-8098 for more information about the organization.

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