Shannondale of Knoxville has a new, four-legged friend that is brightening Shannondale’s community. It’s thanks to a program called H.A.B.I.T. which stands for Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee. The program is composed of people from UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, volunteers and private veterinarian practices.
For the first time since before the pandemic, Shannondale of Knoxville has allowed H.A.B.I.T. volunteers back to work with residents. The H.A.B.I.T. program is designed to focus on therapeutic change.
A New Dog on the Block
“It brightens their day up,” Jen Belle said about bringing her five-year-old Labrador Retriever, Urban. “He just loves everybody, he’s a social butterfly.”
Belle, a dog trainer in Knoxville, said Urban needed a job to do. Following an injury to his back after diving from a dock for a frisbee, H.A.B.I.T. is an alternative that gets them both out of the house. Urban utilizes his brain in a new location. Belle enjoys the volunteer work, and she’s glad Urban can provide comfort at Shannondale Assisted Living and WellPark. So, it’s a win-win.
She said Urban took to older adults easily. “He tends to just fit right into the situation,” Belle explained. “And he’s really enjoying it.”
Belle said when they would visit different crowds he gravitated toward older people. He sought them out, being a calm and relaxed dog in their presence.
“When I started seeing some of those signs, I thought he would be a good fit,” Belle said.
Belle shared that Urban had recently become a H.A.B.I.T. dog. The process started back in November, and in December he was evaluated. At the start of the year Urban was placed with Shannondale when it recently opened the program once more.
Each time he visits she says he’s right at home.
When he goes to WellPark, Shannondale’s short-term rehab facility, he meets people who are there for overnight stays and miss their dogs.
“It’s nice to see them light up,” Belle said.
She walks in and says they’re with H.A.B.I.T. and patients pet him, love him and start talking to her, allowing them ample therapy.
A New Learning Experience
“Getting him acclimated to a new environment has been a learning experience for both of us,” Belle said.
She shared that like any dog, he has energy, and she must wear him out a bit before he goes. And then together they try to figure out which patients to see. Thankfully, Activity Director Mandy Lewis recently used her skills to add a canine-related graphic to residents’ nameplates on the door. That way they know where to go.
“Every person who is agreeable to a visit has a pawprint on it,” Lewis said.
Once Belle and Urban walk in, it often takes visiting with a resident or two for him to settle down a little more, then he relaxes. Plus, Belle enjoys talking to the assisted living residents and WellPark patients to learn more about them.
It is this type of socialization that Lewis says helps those in assisted living. “People who had animals at home don’t get that love and cuddles, so it’s wonderful,” Lewis said.
Before he visits on his scheduled day, Lewis places a picture of Urban in the assisted living center to remind residents of the special visitor stopping by that day.
“It’s nice when an animal comes to visit,” Lewis shared, “We make sure everyone knows.”
When he arrives, Lewis said Urban goes room-to-room and stops to greet residents and staff in the hallways as well. Inside rooms, he’ll gently sniff them and if they aren’t already awake he wakes them up.
“You’d be amazed at how these dogs know what each individual needs,” Lewis said.
She said his visits lighten residents’ emotions and they are more prone to socialize after he stops by, creating positive energy. Residents open up to having human visitors.
“Animals don’t have any expectations from you. You don’t have to remember anything specific, you don’t have to talk, you don’t have to have the right eye contact or mannerisms and you don’t have to act a certain way. You can just love on them and they can just love on you,” Lewis said.
Even a few residents, who do not enjoy animals but see Urban interacting with someone from afar, get joy out of that.
This personalized interaction near or far is a great calming activity.
Spreading the Love
“We’re constantly telling residents’ families to go through the H.A.B.I.T. program,” Lewis said. “That way they can bring their animal in to see their loved one and others, too.”
Shannondale’s Assisted Living doesn’t currently offer pets to live here. However, this does not apply to H.A.B.I.T. program participants. The visit is for one hour at a time. And when they come for the first time Lewis guides them through the building to become familiar with the surroundings. Pets are welcome at the Lodge and Buckingham.
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Urban visits assisted living and WellPark twice every month.