Seniors forge friendships with furry, four-legged pals

CARLSBAD — Nola Douglas relaxed in a chair, snuggling with a dog on her lap. What makes the scene even more special is discovering that Douglas, a senior resident at Las Villas de Carlsbad, is with Samantha, a Love on a Leash (LOAL) certified therapy dog.Once a week, LOAL teams paw their way through the doors at this multi-level retirement community, bringing smiles to residents who may not have had the opportunity to spend time with pets.

“I think dogs are wonderful,” Douglas said.

And Douglas isn’t the only one with that point of view. Every Tuesday morning, numerous Las Villas residents congregate in the living room for LOAL time.

“Residents that normally don’t come out very often for group activities do come out for this,” said Jillyan Leighton, Las Villas de Carlsbad residential activities director. “You see the faces of animal lovers here.”
Some residents share memories of a pet that has passed away or has had to be given up due to personal health challenges. In essence, these weekly visits mean everything to them.

Las Villas de Carlsbad is an independent, assisted living and skilled nursing facility. LOAL visits not only provide pet therapy, Leighton said, but it also offers socialization, which is a huge plus for the senior community.
Susie Blake, LOAL visit captain, looks forward to the time spent with her 8-year-old black Labrador retriever, Joey.

“I tell people all time how lucky I am,” Blake said. “I feel I have so many grandmas and grandpas — I care for them as if they were my own family.”

For six years, Blake and her dog have participated in therapy work. The bond with her dog, she said, grows stronger with each visit they do.

“And the personal friendships I have because of my volunteering is incredible,” Blake said, noting how she has met the nicest people. “And we have so much in common, beginning with the love and respect we have for animals.”

On average, six to 10 teams, including a handler and their pet, do these visits on a volunteer basis. A dog must pass a certification process before becoming a therapy pet. In addition to basic obedience and sound temperament, dogs must be friendly around people and other pets.

LOAL dogs come in all different sizes and breeds — from a Maltese to a Rhodesian ridgeback mix to everything else in between. The one thing all of these dogs have in common is kindness.

LOAL also certifies rabbits and cats.

“The handler/pet team should be focused,” Blake said. “Both should also be friendly and enjoy talking and listening to others.”

LOAL is a national nonprofit organization consisting of local chapters, including one in the North County. The organization takes part in an array of visits such as skilled nursing facilities, “Read to the Dogs” program for young children and other pet therapy pursuits.

Since visiting Las Villas de Carlsbad, Blake has noticed the special relationships built with the seniors.

“For some, we are the only visitors they receive.” Blake said. “The people we visit have wonderful stories, and enjoy sharing them with us and we enjoy listening to them.”

For more information on LOAL, visit loveonaleash.org.

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