(Times Bulletin/Brittany Fullenkamp)
(Times Bulletin/Brittany Fullenkamp)
VAN WERT - Dogs have served as "man's best friend" since 15,000 years ago when they were first domesticated from gray wolves. Since that time, they have served as mostly workers, hunters and companions, but now they're assisting humans in a new profession - therapists.

Van Wert residents Jerry and Sonia Mazur have owned psychological therapy dogs for several years, and have recently introduced a new one - a border collie named Pete - to the residents of Vancrest.

Jerry and Sonia started visiting patients with their standard poodle when they resided in Florida. "Our poodle was a certified pet therapist and we were going in and out of Lee Memorial Hospital down in Florida. Sonia would take her to the rehab center and I would take her to the post-cardiac center," explained Jerry.

Sonia added that only a few dogs were allowed in the cardiac unit. Their poodle was welcomed because she was non-allergenic and did not shed. She had also been trained to stand by the bedsides at nursing homes and hospitals.

Becoming a certified pet therapist is not easy, explained Jerry. For their poodle, the Mazurs went through Therapy Dogs Incorporated. TDI is a national organization that offers classes for therapy dogs. After participating in several hours worth of obedience classes, the dog is evaluated on criteria such as how social it is, how well it listens to the handler and the vocabulary it knows. If it passes the criteria, the dog becomes a certified pet therapist.

Jerry and Sonia first met Pete a couple of years ago while they were living in the Cayman Islands.

"After we moved down there, our standard poodle, who was 11 at the time, contracted cancer and passed away," explained Jerry. "Right away, we were kind of hesitant to get a dog, but then Sonia was out doing a dog walk for the Kiwanis Club. They have a bunch of mutts down there and they just walk them to get exercise. That's where she saw Pete."

Sonia convinced Jerry to go to the SPCA to see Pete. Pete had been in and out of the SPCA a couple of times. He was initially put in as a small puppy and was adopted two separate occasions before meeting the Mazurs. "When we saw him, he was really like the official greeter," joked Jerry. "He stood out by the counter; that's what he did."

It was love at first sight for Jerry and Sonia, and Pete was immediately adopted. He is now enjoying life in Van Wert and helping the residents at Vancrest.

When Pete arrives at the nursing home, he first goes to a special room where treats are set up for him. He is then prepped to walk around the facility and put on a leash. Pete is lead around to different rooms and areas where he says "hello" to the residents.

Therapy dogs have a history of making "miracles" happen, said Sonia. "There was a lady in a nursing home (the doctors) said was comatose. They said she had some brain waves but they didn't think she would ever come out of the coma. The family didn't want everything pulled, so she was put in the rehab part of the facility. One day, they brought the dog in, and the first time they brought in the therapy dog, the dog went in, put its paw on her bed, and she reached over and pet the dog. The doctors said it was just a fluke, so they left it go, but the next week they brought the dog in again and she did the same thing! I do know the doctors really changed their tune after seeing that."

Dogs have also worked as service dogs for other people such as the blind, the deaf and even with autisitc children.

"We know a lady with an autistic son and as soon as he starts getting excited, that dog will go over and kind of nudge him and get his nose on him and he'll reach over and pet him and everything calms down," explained Sonia.

Sonia also explained that dogs are being used in numerous other ways to help people with disabilities. "There is a reading disability program for children who stutter and struggle with reading. If the child is in a group for reading and is having a problem, what do other children do? They kind of giggle and make them think the reader doesn't know what they're doing. So, this program takes the dogs in and they take the child with the book and they have the child read to the dog. It's a fantastic program because the kids are reading, but the dog is just laying there listening. The dog does not laugh if the child messes up."

Sonia continued, "They also use them for narcolepsy because they watch so much, and if you're falling asleep while driving, they'll nudge you so you wake up. There are now epileptic dogs that carry a pouch, and somehow they know if you're about to have a seizure. And they know to go get someone for help."

Jerry and Sonia believe that it is because of the unconditional love dogs have that make them great service animals. "When they go to a nursing home, they don't care if they can't talk or you can't understand them. They don't care as long as you reach out and pet them, that's all they need," said Sonia.

They also serve as the motivation for those in nursing homes to get better. "When you take a therapy dog to a hospital or a nursing home and the people love the dog so much that they want to get out of the bed and go home and get near their own dog, that gives the person strength and motivation to get out of there. That's the benefit of the therapy dog, in my opinion," said Jerry. "I remember having the poodle on the cardiac floor, and one guy was petting her on the head and he said, 'I want to get out of here so bad so I can go home and pet my dog.' That's the effect that they have on pet lovers."