Therapy Dog Odie Assists, Brings Joy To Seniors

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The week of August 4 is International Assistance Dog Week and Interim HealthCare, a leading national home care, hospice and healthcare staffing franchise, celebrates by highlighting the contributions of Odie, a five-year-old Golden Retriever who is improving the lives of seniors in South Florida. Additionally, the established in-home care organization draws attention to Pals2Pets, a program unique in the industry because it provides additional training to caregivers who encounter pets over the course of the 25 million hours of care they provide annually in clients' homes.

International Assistance Dog Week was created to recognize all the devoted, hardworking therapy and service dogs which help individuals mitigate disability-related limitations. Assistance dogs transform the lives of their human partners by serving as devoted companions, helpers, aides, best friends and close members of the family. In addition to honoring assistance dogs during their special week, one of the goals is to raise awareness about these very special and highly trained animals.

Odie, the Florida assistance dog, visits skilled nursing and rehab centers as well as Alzheimer's units in West Palm Beach with his handlers. He's practically famous in the community for his loving temperament and even travels in an Interim HealthCare van which features his photo as a vehicle wrap. Having been a member of the Interim HealthCare of the Treasure Coast team for three years, Odie has worked with, brought joy and positively impacted the lives of about 2,500 people. His visits alleviate symptoms of depression and offset memory loss and other conditions associated with aging. Odie responds to more than 50 verbal commands including "hug," "kiss," "my lap," and even "make a friend" (he immediately lies down) and "look at me" (he stops and looks you right in the eyes).

"Pets are such an important part of many peoples' lives, perhaps even more so for the elderly. Because so many of our seniors are pet owners, we created the Pals2Pets program with the Humane Society to provide additional training for employees who are caring for these individuals," said Kathleen Gilmartin, CEO of Interim HealthCare.  "Assistance Dog Week is a perfect time to celebrate not only specially-trained dogs like Odie, but all the everyday pets that help seniors live more enriched, productive lives."

Many senior citizens consider pets members of the family; in fact, half of the senior population ages 62 and over own at least one pet. According to a study in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, caring for a cat or dog helps elderly people overcome depression or loneliness.

"Odie has the unique ability to brighten up any room he walks into," said Shawn Griffin, Odie's handler and COO/Managing Partner of Interim HealthCare of the Treasure Coast. "Once we were visiting residents in a dementia unit and a patient who typically is cognizant but quite despondent, actually got up from her chair with open arms, smiled and hugged Odie, stroking his long fur and calling him 'Pepe.' We later learned 'Pepe' was her beloved Chihuahua and this was the first time in weeks she had even spoken. She now talks about Pepe and those good memories all the time."

"Odie just makes people feel good and the fact that he can trigger such fond memories makes him a huge asset to the therapy Interim HealthCare provides," Griffin added.

With training developed by the National Humane Society University, Interim HealthCare's Pals2Pets program is not an assistance dog program. Rather, it provides an additional training for caregivers to help them recognize pet behaviors, improve interactions with their clients' furry family members and provide a deeper level of overall care for those people with pets. Courses in the special certification program include how to interpret animal behavior and safe handling, animal safety and hygiene, and how to recognize animal abuse or neglect. Overall, a thorough understanding of pets in the home facilitates a better experience for clients as well as caregivers. Care professionals receive special Pals2Pets training through an online course customized by Interim HealthCare and the Humane Society University. Pals2Pets is part of Interim Healthcare's HomeLife Enrichment program, which focuses on all aspects of aging, helping people live enriched, safe and independent lives.