BETTY WATERS, Tyler Morning Telegraph Correspondent
A resident kindly spoke and rubbed the neck of a standard poodle dressed in a tutu, necklace and hat which stood beside her bed in a Tyler nursing facility.
“You’re a lover girl, I can tell. You are a pretty, pretty girl. You are smiling, too,” she said.
The woman and the poodle instantly hit it off when Rick Gabehart made rounds with mamma dog Sassy, a white poodle, and her pup, Raven, a black poodle, going from room to room visiting residents in the memory care and skilled nursing units of Meadow Lake Senior Living.
The Gabeharts take the pups to community events and to assisted living, nursing and memory care facilities in Tyler to mingle with the residents, many of whom miss their dog left at home
The Gabehardt poodles arrive at their visits dressed up and have a whole closet full of costumes for various occasions, including Valentine’s, Labor Day, the Fourth of July and Cinco de Mayo. They even wear glasses. The poodles are sometimes dressed to look like other animals, such as a raccoon and lion, or like singer Elvis Presley. Although most dogs might shake off the costumes, the poodles wear clothes all day.
And they tend to be quite a hit.
The couple originally had the dogs just as pets, but when Gabehart got into the senior care industry about five years ago, he realized what a difference it makes in the lives of residents to have a dog visit.
“The thing every senior needs most is socialization and to continue to feel and touch and experience life,” Gabehart said.
He encourages seniors to pet the poodles and feel their soft fur.
In one amazing case, he said, a man in memory care, who had not spoken in a couple of years, began calling the poodle to come to him. Within a month, the man was talking again, Gabehart said.
The Gabeharts first trained their poodles as emotional support dogs and shortly after, took the next step of training them as pet therapy dogs. The training involves a lot of socialization, getting them comfortable in many different situations as well as exposing them to different people, Gabehart said.
Unlike service dogs trained for specific tasks, a pet therapy dog provides support and relationship, he said.
In pet therapy, most times there is an instant bond and relationship between the poodles and residents of nursing, assisted living and memory care centers, Gabehart said, but he acknowledged some residents do not like dogs.
Toni Johnson-Lumley, clinical liaison at Meadow Lake Senior Living, said pet therapy has positive effects that can improve and lengthen life.
“It calms their anxiety, especially in memory care, and their blood pressure is lowered,” she said. “That special bond between an animal and human beings makes a big difference. It helps get them well sooner. We welcome the animals to come.”