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Service Dogs Bring Smiles to Residents of River Garden

K9s For Warriors - AARP Florida

Of all the sadness and isolation inflicted on Floridians age 50-plus by the COVID-19 pandemic, one struck an especially painful blow: Furry friends disappeared from elder-care facilities.

It was too risky, both for residents and staff of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and independent living facilities, to have Service Dogs and therapy dogs and their handlers come for visits.

But with wide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in Florida elder-care facilities and changing guidance on visits, that all changed March 23 for residents of River Garden, a 40-acre campus that provides a continuum of elder care. 

K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that teams trained Service Dogs with veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder and other service-related health conditions, brought about 15 Service Dogs-in-training to River Garden for Doggies in the Window, a new initiative to bring Service Dogs back to elder care.

“It was a beautiful day and everyone loved being outside and seeing the dogs,” said Kari Bell, marketing director for River Garden. “So many of our seniors love to see furry friends and we have not been able to do that for so long. It was a very welcome program, and there were lots of smiles.”

Bell said a key link in the event was Nan Rothstein, a Jacksonville attorney whose volunteer community service includes serving on the board of directors of River Garden. She also serves as Associate General Counsel of K9s For Warriors. It was the organization’s fourth such event to date.

K9s For Warriors is the nation’s largest veteran service organization providing highly skilled Service Dogs to disabled veterans. The organization says its goal is to prevent veteran suicide and to empower veterans to return to life with dignity and independence, focusing on those living with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma.

Veterans are paired with trained Service Dogs and spend three weeks at the organization’s campus, bonding with the animals and being trained in their care. Research has established that Service Dogs help veterans cope with PTSD and other issues. The program is offered at no cost to the veterans.

During the event, these Service Dogs-in-training first wound their way through an outdoor seating area with residents of the skilled nursing facility. Since Service Dogs are working animals and petting can distract them from their responsibilities, the residents couldn’t pet the dogs. But just being close to the animals lifted the spirits of residents, Bell said.

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K9s for Warriors  - Florida
©K9s For Warriors

The dogs then wound their way through the independent-living portion of the campus, with residents coming out to their patios to watch and enjoy the animals. The event provided not only a good experience for residents, but also good training for the Service Dogs-in-training in a public setting, Bell said. River Garden is also home to several veterans and having dogs who will soon be paired up with veterans provided a treat for all concerned, Bell said.

“We realized that there were many seniors across Florida who were essentially stuck in their senior centers and unable to get out and see families or their dogs, for their own protection of course,” said K9s For Warriors CEO Rory Diamond. “So we came up with this idea to bring dogs to them in a safe way.”

Diamond said the group first focused on elder-care facilities focused on caring for veterans, and now is focusing on other communities.

The responses to the initiative have been “breathtakingly beautiful,” said Diamond. Facility residents enjoy getting to see and get close to the dogs. “You see them waving and smiling and looking at the dogs. Everybody has a great time.”

“Everybody wins here,” Diamond said. “The dogs get good training, the training staff gets more experience out in the world and of course we get to bring these wonderful dogs to our seniors here in Florida.”

River Garden Senior Services is a not-for-profit, mission-driven community agency offering an array of elder care programs and services on a 40-acre campus in the Mandarin area of Jacksonville. The River Garden campus includes: River Garden Hebrew Home, a 180-bed skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility; The Coves at River Garden, an 80-unit independent living community; River Garden Home Health Care, a Florida licensed and Medicare certified home health agency; River Garden Rehab, providing short-stay rehabilitation and outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapies; River Garden Adult Day Care; and the River Garden Foundation, providing financial support to the River Garden system of senior services. The River Garden Auxiliary provides support through financial contributions and hundreds of volunteer hours.

River Garden has received the State of Florida Governor’s Gold Seal Award and is consistently rated a 5-star rated community by the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) and by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) as having high-quality nursing home services for promoting health and improving the quality of life. Additionally, River Garden has earned the Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval for Nursing Care Center Accreditation and Post-Acute Care Certification for demonstrating continuous compliance with its performance standards.

Determined to end veteran suicide, K9s For Warriors is the nation’s largest provider of trained Service Dogs to military veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma. With the majority of dogs coming from high-kill rescue shelters, this innovative program allows the K9/Warrior team to build an unwavering bond that facilitates their collective healing and recovery. This treatment method is backed by scientific research (from Purdue University’s OHAIRE Lab) demonstrating Service Dogs’ ability to help mitigate their veteran’s symptoms of PTSD while simultaneously restoring their confidence and independence. Founded in 2011 as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, K9s For Warriors remains committed to bringing widespread awareness to veterans’ mental health and contributing to policy-level reform. The organization’s three primary business operation facilities include: K9s For Warriors National Headquarters (Ponte Vedra, Fla.,) Gold Family Campus (Alachua, Fla.,) and Petco Foundation K9 Center (San Antonio, Texas).

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