By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffDecember 17, 2008
Visitors at the Tut Fann Veterans Home rarely are of the four-legged variety.
But, thanks to the generosity of some dog owners from Athens, veterans at Tut Fann recently got to pet, hold, hug and talk to a few of "man's best friends."
The furry visitors garnered lots of different responses during their Dec. 9 visit with veterans, ranging from surprise to sheer joy with comments like "good dog" and "What a nice puppy."
For some, the gentle nature of a large Sable German shepherd known as Taka or the alertness of a frisky Border collie mix known as Dixie brought back memories of growing up on a farm. For others, the cute expressions of a Yorkshire terrier named Miss Sophie and the excited, cuddly nature of a Lakeland terrier named Sailor were enough to make them smile and laugh, while others found amusement in just watching the dogs, including a beagle mix named Abby, ambling through the visiting rooms and hallways.
Leading the pack of dogs and their owners (Karen Davis, Sheila Wilbanks, Sharyl Groscost and Sharon Wittenauer), was Jamie Ward, the acting chief of the acquisition management division of the Lower Tier Project Office, who is also a dog trainer and competitive handler. Ward and the other owners are members of Love on a Leash Therapy K9s, an Athens-based organization affiliated with Therapy Dogs Inc.
"We take our dogs into nursing homes to visit the elderly and into schools to teach children about safety around dogs," Ward said.
"Today, we've all come out to support our veterans. I've worked on the Arsenal for 26 years. Even though I'm not a Soldier, I know what it means to support the Soldiers."
Coincidentally, the visit with veterans at Tut Fann fell on what would have been the 75th birthday of Ward's father, Army veteran Frank Siniard, who died earlier this year. She and Taka both wore a picture of Siniard to honor the special day.
"I have the Army to thank for my parents and for me being here," Ward said. "My mom met my dad before he went into the Army, but she didn't really care for him. The Army matured him so that when he came home my mom could fall in love with him. I know he was always proud that I work for and support the Army."
Taka, only 20 months old, is one of two Sable German shepherds that belong to Ward. While the other doesn't have the temperament to be a therapy dog, Ward knew from the start that Taka -- whose name means "hawk" in Japanese -- would be a good dog in any situation.
"I've always wanted to work with a therapy dog. But I never had a dog with the right personality," said Ward, who has raised several German shepherds. "When I got Taka, I realized he could do this. He is the most laid back male dog I've ever had. He's very loving and very gentle. I can take him anywhere. I can bring him into an environment where there are lots of people and they can touch him without worry."
To be a member of Love on a Leash, dogs must first pass a basic obedience class. In Athens, most therapy dogs go through training at House of Paws K9 Obedience Academy, where Ward teaches obedience classes. They then go through a 10-week therapy dog training class, and are required to pass the Canine Good Citizen Test provided by the American Kennel Clubs.
"They have to know how to walk beside you. They need to know the basic things like sit, down and heel. And they need to know to do more complicated things like being able to walk with their trainer when there are lots of distractions around, being able to ride in an elevator and go through automatic doors, being able to work with people around lots of different smells, and knowing to stop at a corner and wait for their trainer before continuing around the corner," Ward said.
For Taka, one special training issue involved his keen interest in tennis balls as play toys. Often, in nursing homes, tennis balls are cut open and placed on the bottom of chair legs to make the chairs easier to slide on the floor. Ward had to make Taka understand that tennis balls on chair legs were not the kinds of tennis balls he should play with.
Training also prepares the dog's owner for the challenges of taking their dog into unknown environments and being able to connect with all kinds of different people.
"In training, you are not only training the dogs, but the owners, too," she said. "They need to know how to handle their dog in a stressful situation. No matter what, our first responsibility is to our dogs. As a handler, you have to have such a bond with your dog that you know what they are thinking and feeling, and the dog knows what you are thinking and feeling, too."
Throughout their visit at Tut Fann, the dog owners paid close attention to their dogs, introducing them and encouraging interaction between their pets and the veterans.
"She wants to thank you for everything you've done. That's why she's wearing her patriotic bandana," Sheila Wilbanks told a veteran as she introduced him to her Yorkshire terrier named Miss Sophie.
The motto for Love on a Leash is "sharing smiles and spreading joy." When Ward and Taka make a therapy visit, Ward will leave behind a card that reads "You were visited today by Taka. He works for hugs and kisses, and brings comfort to those in need."
"These dogs do amazing things and bring lots of joy to people," Ward said.
Although their first visit to Tut Fann came on a weekday, Ward and other Love on a Leash dog owners plan to make further visits on weekends because of their schedules.
"We all work, so visiting is better on the weekends," she said. "Taka and I and other dog owners and their dogs will visit Tut Fann monthly. We want to commit to these veterans and show them we haven't forgotten about them. Taka and I made lots of friends today and we plan to make many more friends at the veterans home."
The dog owners were encouraged by the time they spent with the veterans.
"Everyone, including the dogs, had a wonderful time," Ward said. "I had two of the handlers come up to me after the visit with tears in their eyes to tell me what a rewarding experience it was. That is what our group is all about."
"It was a wonderful experience for us," added dog owner Karen Davis. "I think all the dogs really did well today."
Editor's note: For more information about Love on a Leash and its work with veterans, call Jamie Ward at 233-2962 or 955-3371 or e-mail her at email@example.com or contact House of Paws K9 Obedience Academy at www.houseofpawsk9.com or 216-0945.