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Island’s therapy dogs and their owners deliver informative presentation

By Staff | Nov 11, 2010

Carol Heath snuggles up with her therapy dog, Tazzie, who frequently visits a Hospice facility in Fort Myers. Heath and two other islanders and their service/therapy dogs took part in an informative program at St. Michael and All Angels Church on Monday.

For the first time in the history of the Episcopal Church Women from St. Michael and All Angels Church, Parish Hall really went to the dogs.

On Monday afternoon, about 75 people attended an informative and educational program entitled “Meet Some Special Dogs,” which featured Tom Gray and his seeing-eye dog, Jackson; Dave Gromberg and his reading therapy dog, Rocky; and Carol Heath and her therapy dog, Tazzie.

“We wanted to do something innovative and different that could involve the whole community,” said Gillian Bath, who coordinated the program for the ECW. “This program is informational, and spiritual, in a sense. All of God’s creatures are important, and ‘man’s best friend’ really can do so many useful things for us.”

Rocky, who appears at the Sanibel Public Library on Thursday afternoons, assists children who may have some reading disabilities. The gentle and patient pooch sits on the floor while the reader reads from their book.

“I always insist that they pick a book with lots of pictures… because Rocky loves pictures,” said Gromberg, which drew a big laugh from the crowd.

Lions Club member Tom Gray and his service dog, Jackson.

According to Gromberg, Rocky became a certified therapy dog through the Delta Society of Gulf Coast Pet Partners.

“I had to read their book and take a test, too,” he quipped. “And Rocky scored higher than I did!”

In addition to visiting the library, the pair also visits Hospice patients.

“That’s the favorite thing that we do,” Gromberg added. “Seeing what they get out of meeting Rocky really warms my heart. And it makes him happy, too.”

Gray, who suffers from macular degeneration, reported that he was luckily put on the “fast track” to acquire a seeing-eye dog, spending less than three months with Southeast Guide Dogs in training before being given Jackson, a golden retriever/yellow lab mix.

Gromberg attempts to have Rocky do a trick for the audience.

“For some people, it can take about two years before they are given a dog,” he said.

When Jackson has his harness on, he literally becomes Gray’s eyes. On duty, the canine is trained to protect his guardian and avoid any potential hazards or conflicts.

“But as soon as you take the harness off, he’s just like a regular dog — he loses half of his brain cells,” added Gray with a chuckle. “And he sleeps with his eyes open — it’s kinda weird. He’s always taking care of me.”

The longtime member of the Sanibel-Captiva Lions Club also stated that his being paired up with Jackson makes perfect sense, especially living here on Sanibel.

“We walk all over the island. He’s my car,” said Gray. “This is a great place to live if you don’t drive.”

Heath, who adopted Tazzie about three years ago, said that she enjoys her pet being a therapy animal because of the instant connection that is created between the dog and a patient.

“Touch is so important to us. When you hold somebody’s hand, you can communicate in a non-verbal way that you care,” said Heath. “Some people get so excited when they meet her. And those people may not get many visitors, so Tazzie become very special to them.”

According to Heath, medical studies have revealed that when patients interact with therapy dogs, their blood pressure goes down. She enjoys the smiles that appear on the faces of the patients Tazzie visits, having worked with the Hospice program for more than 30 years. When the pair shows up for a visit at the Fort Myers facility, the faces of the patients — as well as visiting family members — always seem to light up.

“It’s just a joy and a privilege to be able to do this with her,” Heath added. “She’s not there to do tricks or to perform. She’s there to give loving attention… just what everybody needs.”