Ask TECO’s Kathleen Waligore if old dogs can learn new tricks and she’ll tell you about a pair of eight-year-old Shih Tzu mixes that over the course of six months went from not-housebroken to experts at providing comfort and healing.
Waligore, manager of Corporate Cash, is the proud owner of Diamond and Ebony – and a novice dog owner at that – after a visit to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.
“I come from a large family and even though we had a dog when I was a child, that doesn’t really count,” she laughed.
Not like it does now: with a drive to volunteer her time in the community like so many others at TECO and two new companions eager to help, she’s become one of two people whose therapy dogs help brighten days for patients of Pasco County’s Gulfside Hospice and their family members. Add local hospital and nursing home visits and you have a pair of canine caretakers bringing comfort to strangers in moments of deepest need – sometimes in end-of-life situations.
“Being around therapy dogs can help lower someone’s blood pressure, reduce stress and severity of depression, create calm, peaceful feelings and the list goes on,” Waligore said. “As someone who studied psychology, I was attuned to the growing acceptance among professional caregivers about the value of therapy dogs – but when I saw what the dogs can do firsthand, there was no doubt. When you see a patient in an unresponsive state respond, in just a small way, to the presence of a therapy dog, the benefits are obvious.”
(She even suggested, only half-jokingly, that employees at a certain workplace she was very familiar with might benefit from having her dogs there as a way to reduce stress and increase productivity.)
Waligore came to appreciate the importance of helping hospice, hospital and nursing home patients as she cared for her father over 15 years. When she met Diamond and Ebony, she put the pieces together. Six months of training from the American Kennel Club through Petco – followed by help from Canines for Christ to match her up with local caregiving facilities that welcome pet therapy – and she’d found a new way to make the world a better place.
“It starts with the dog’s personality, she said of pet therapy as an option for people to consider. “If a dog doesn’t like people, it’s probably not a good idea.”
Waligore said her dogs are the perfect match in the ways they’ve taken to their new roles.
“They love being around people so much that they don’t even look for treats,” Waligore laughed. “If you have the right dog for this kind of thing, I’d recommend it to anybody. It’s good for you, good for the dogs – and there’s a real need in the community.”
With training to help ensure that the dogs are calm and well-behaved – around strangers, in crowds, around other dogs and equipment like wheelchairs – they can address needs people have in completely unique ways.
Like a moment not long ago, when the grandson of a woman in hospice found comfort in Diamond and Ebony.
“You could just see how his whole demeanor was suddenly at ease,” Waligore said of the grandson. “The chaplain told me later that his grandmother died only minutes after we left. He said maybe she could feel that her grandson was at peace. He said maybe that gave her what she needed to be able to let go and be with her dogs.”