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The 'dog'tor will see you now
Therapy dogs provide a unique kind of comfort
wHospice Picture 1
Cheri Duffey hugs two of her therapy dogs, Tarrah and Sunny. Tarrah, Sunny and Gatlin, with help from Duffey, have logged many hours brightening the lives of and bringing comfort to Special Olympics participants, hospital and hospice patients, nursing home residents and caregivers and encouraging the reading abilities of children during the Statesboro Regional Library's Reading to Rover program. - photo by Special to the Herald

Caregivers and those who serve others come in all shapes and sizes, but sometimes the person in need just wants a little
attention from someone with a cold and wet nose, four paws and a furry body.
    That’s what Cheri Duffey, owner and handler of several therapy dogs, has found out.
     Duffey’s canine crew includes Tarrah, a border collie and Lab mix; Sunny, a Labrador retriever; and Gatlin, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.
    Duffey just happened to catch a documentary on therapy dogs on television several years back and thought her dog, Tarrah, had the temperament for the job. Realizing Tarrah had some work to do, Duffey took her to obedience classes. About a year and a half later, in 2004, Tarrah passed the tests and requirements to become a therapy dog.
    With more than 600 visits in her lifetime, Tarrah just recently retired from her duties as a therapy dog. Tarrah took part in the Statesboro Regional Library’s Reading to Rover program and visited patients in nursing homes.
    “One gentleman with muscular dystrophy would call me if I hadn’t been in a while,” Duffey said. “We followed him from the nursing home to hospice.” 
    Duffey also recalled another poignant story.
    “We followed another man from nursing home to nursing home,” she said. “He had dementia so badly at the end that he didn’t recognize his wife and children, but he always knew Tarrah.
    “When I visited the funeral home, the family had a picture of him with Tarrah next to the casket and included it in his slideshow,” Duffey continued. “His wife asked to see Tarrah afterward. It brought comfort to her.”
    Duffey said equally rewarding are the times she watched Tarrah with children during Reading to Rover events.
    “Kids lose their inhibitions when they read to a dog because the dog won’t tell them they’re mispronouncing a word,” she said.
    Chuckling, Duffey said, “A 4-year-old once stopped reading and said, ‘Tarrah, you’re not listening, and you’re not looking at the pictures.’ ”
    When visiting the hospital, sometimes nurses would tell Duffey which patients wanted or needed a visit.
    “A doctor sent me in to see this lady,” Duffey said. “He kinda had a funny look on his face and the nurses looked surprised. She saw Tarrah, had a big smile, petted her a long time. When I came out, the doctor said she’d been giving them a fit — she was schizophrenic.”
    Another opportunity to comfort arose when Tarrah visited an agitated man in the hospice facility.
    “Tarrah actually got in bed with him,” Duffey said. “Even after we left that day, he was still petting; it had calmed him.”
    What began as a slight interest after watching the special on therapy dogs has turned into a passion and ministry for Duffey.
    “It’s gotten to be a mission for me,” she said. “To spend time with my dog and bring a smile to someone. One lady at the hospital told me I could leave the dog with her while I went shopping."
    “It’s very fulfilling,” she continued. “The dogs have unconditional love. They don’t care what the patients look like, their social class, what’s wrong with them.”
    Duffey said Tarrah specialized in the elderly, greeting them with such care, often putting her paws up on the side of the bed.
    And though Tarrah spent many hours with children reading to her, therapy dog Sunny was calmer around kids.
    “I took Sunny to a special needs camp once,” Duffey said. “A little one crawled on her back, grabbed her ears like she was riding her, smooshed her face into Sunny’s and Sunny just licked her.”
    Duffey picked out the breed of her third dog especially for therapy purposes. She said Gatlin, who just became certified last May, has already made 50 visits. And though she says he is amazing, she pointed out, “He has big paws to fill to follow Tarrah.”
    Duffey’s mention of her therapy work during a Bible study influenced a friend, Angela Johnson, to follow in her footsteps. Johnson also views her dog visits as a mission.
    “God put it on my heart to do this when I got the youngest of my three children out of diapers,” Johnson said.
    Captain, a poodle/Shih Tzu mix, and Johnson mostly visit nursing homes.
    “Some of the residents don’t have family nearby or visitors,” she said. “I go in the mornings when a lot of people are at work because some of the patients are very lonely. The dog is a way in, and then you become friends with the people.”
    Johnson, who remembered visiting nursing homes in her younger days as a 4-H’er, said she’s always had a heart for older adults because they are so full of wisdom.
    “I really take the time to sit down and get to know the people,” she said. “It’s a heart-to-heart connection. Jesus was an example for us and how we’re to live. When I visit, I feel like I’m the hands and feet of Jesus.”
    And she’s accompanied by four furry feet as well.

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