WOODBRIDGE~ Once a month, Harborside Healthcare Willows, a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Woodbridge, literally “goes to the dogs” when four members of the Trap Falls Kennel Club pay a visit to the residents. These dedicated dog-owner teams share their time and love with others who can no longer be with their pets.

According to Terry Duda, the Therapeutic Recreation Director and Volunteer Coordinator at the Willows, visiting with animals can help people feel less lonely, and less depressed. Many of the residents have had many losses-they may have lost their spouse, home or pets, and just seeing the animals bring a lot of joy to the patients.

“A dog pays little attention to age or physical ability, but accepts people as they are, so the residents have no fear of rejection from an animal that they might get from another human being…the animal doesn't care if you can't walk or talk, they just give unconditional love, and don't expect anything back. I've seen residents instantly start to smile, and forget that they just said they can't move their arms, and go to pet an animal” explained Duda when asked why the program is so successful.

The teams have been visiting with the Willows residents for several years, and provide a welcome change from routine and a monthly renewal of old friendships. People become more active and responsive both during and after visiting with animals.

Beverly Wininger, along with her Schipperke, Camber, and Dolores O'Niell with her Shetland Sheep dog, Mitzi, participate in the pet therapy program at of the Willows. According to Wininger, the less physically able residents seem to need the visit from the animals more, and the animals seem to understand the residents' needs more. It seems as though the animals see everyone as perfect, without any thought of physical or mental limitation.

An animal visit can offer entertainment, or a welcome distraction from pain and infirmity. These dogs act as a catalyst to take the residents minds off their problems and dwell for a while on interacting with the dogs. People often talk to the dogs, and share with them their thoughts and feelings and memories. Animal visits provide something to look forward to.

Stroking a dog or cat can reduce a person's blood pressure. Petting encourages use of hands and arms, stretching and turning. Improvement in the quality of life may come through increased social stimulation, tactile stimulation (petting and touching), and improved morale and physical well being.

"Visiting Pets" "Therapy Dogs" "Pet Therapy" are just some of the names given to describe programs in which animals help people just by visiting with them. Therapy dogs can be any breed, mix, size, shape or color-they simply need to be well behaved and able to tolerate new and perhaps disturbing events, like a rolling wheelchair, or falling crutches, and enjoy being the center of attention. Duda has a set of specific criteria that the animal must meet, including vaccinations and annual check ups, and policies on where the animals can go in the facility.

If you are interested in participating in pet therapy visits at the Willows, contact Duda at 387-0076 to arrange for an interview for you and your pet. And if you would like to enjoy the benefits of animal companionship, either though adopting an animal, or by just spending some time with them, stop by the District Animal Control Shelter at 135 Bradley Road in Woodbridge, or call 389-5991. The shelter serves the four towns of Orange, Woodbridge, Bethany, and Prospect.