Margie Ellington gives Emma, a 6-year-old labradoodle and therapy dog, a pat during a visit to the Magnolia’s Assisted Living home. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
CONYERS — Darryl Powell stands in the lobby of the Magnolia’s Assisted Living home in Conyers with Emma, a gray, fuzzy labradoodle on leash. Resident Bettie Harden walks into the lobby.
“Hello, you like dogs?” he asks her.
“I love ‘em,” she responds, as she reaches down to pat Emma on the head. “Hello there, how ya doin’? You like that? Well, you feel good.”
Harden wants to know if the dog has taken up residence. Smith smiles and says “no,” she’s only here for a visit. Harden settles into a chair and strokes the dog some more.
“You’re so cute, you’re so beautiful,” Harden says to Emma.
Then resident Margie Ellington appears in the lobby, has a seat and Powell guides Emma to her. Ellington is also taken with the dog.
“I love it. I’ve never seen any sweeter. It’s precious,” she coos to Emma. “She’s a sweet dog, she’s a real sweet dog. I could take you with me but I guess I better not.”
Within a few minutes, about eight residents make a semi-circle around Emma, her sweet face and pleasant disposition a magnet for the women.
They ask questions — “Does she do any tricks?” “What is she?”
Powell explains that Emma is only there for a little canine companionship.
Emma is a therapy dog and recently several Rockdale residents, including Powell, have decided to press their dogs into service in that role.
Therapy dogs are dogs who are trained to be taken into social settings such as nursing homes, hospitals and schools where they interact with people in those facilities and provide a calming, nurturing effect, said Conyers K-9 Academy owner Danny Lowery, whose been a dog trainer for 35 years.
“That’s the reason I got Duke,” said Brenda Landers, a Conyers resident and proud owner of Duke, a 1-year-old goldendoodle, who was trained by Lowery. “He opens the door for helping people and loving on people. And I’m the most blessed because seeing him brings smiles at the nursing home, that blesses me.”
Lowery said therapy dogs can be used in schools to help children to read. Sometimes kids are hesitant to read to other people because they are insecure but dogs don’t judge you or correct you when you read to them.
They’ve also been used on college campuses during exam time to lower student stress levels. The dogs even play a role during tragedies, like the Newtown school shooting, to aid people in their grief and devastation, said Lowery.
“It’s a good thing. It’s more to the forefront,” he said of the therapy dog concept.
Lowery said he’s recently prepared four canines, including Powell’s and Landers’, for use as therapy dogs. He teaches the dogs (and the owners) the basics such as “sit” and “stay,” and also extras such as “leave it,” which instructs the dog to not pick up something dropped on the floor and “paws up” which tells the dogs to put his paws up onto the lap of a person, used in situations when a person cannot reach over to pet the dog.
Once they’ve taken their dogs to basic obedience training, dog owners then seek out registration with Therapy Dogs Inc., an organization based in Wyoming but with representatives nationwide who evaluate the dogs to see if they are ready for service.
As part of the registration process, the dog is evaluated during three separate visits to public locations like assisted living facilities and hospitals. The dog then must also pass another obedience exam. Dogs must also be up-to-date on shots, have annual fecal exams and be clean and well-groomed.
The three therapy dog owners gathered in the Olde Town pavilion recently to show off their pooches and spoke highly of Lowery’s training, which laid the groundwork for their dogs to become therapy dogs. Any breeds are acceptable to be therapy dogs, as long as they can pass the evaluations.
“He’s got a knack for it. He’s got a gift for it,” said Powell of Lowery’s training.
Powell’s Emma is 6 years old and in her younger years served as a breeding female for a different owner. Powell said his daughter-in-law is a veterinarian and after seeing Emma she encouraged him to train her for therapy service.
“She said Emma would be perfect,” said Powell.
Billy Buchanan, who also trained under Lowery, is the owner of Bear, a year and a half old golden retriever. Buchanan, who lives in Oxford and works as a worship pastor at First Baptist Church of Conyers, said he saw therapy dogs at Atlanta hospitals and became inspired to use Bear for that purpose.
“I thought, ‘We could do that,’” said Buchanan, who’s taken Bear to assisted living facilities, rehabilitation centers, hospices and even his church. “As a pastor, it’s cool for me to do hospital visits with my dog.”
The therapy dog owners said they’re now trying to make inroads with Rockdale Medical Center and the Rockdale County School System to try and use the therapy dogs at those locations.
In order to remain a registered therapy dog, the dog must make at least four public visits a year. The dog owners who trained under Lowery said they go much more frequently, at least once a month.
“It changes lives. The dogs were meant to do this,” said Buchanan. “This is why we call dogs man’s best friend.”