Treasure Island resident June Entwistle, with her dog Zorro, stands outside the Springs at Boca Ciega Bay in South Pasadena where they visit once a week.
June Entwistle, of Treasure Island, knew she wanted to volunteer and give back to her community, but wasn’t sure exactly how. Then Zorro was born and she knew immediately: involve Zorro in pet therapy to help older people.
“I watched him being born,” she said. “He has this great healing personality. I waited until he was 2 years old, and I just knew he’d be good. I wanted to do volunteer work for Hospice, and now I could combine the two.”
When asked how much time and effort she invests as a volunteer to help the elderly, Entwistle, 68, immediately swung the spotlight back on her now 6-year-old Shih Tzu.
“I always kid that when I walk into a room with Zorro, nobody sees me,” she said. “Everybody always says, ‘Zorro’s here, Zorro’s here,’ as though I were invisible. But I know they appreciate that I’m here with my time and my dog to make people feel better.”
Entwistle and Zorro make a weekly visit to each of the nursing homes in South Pasadena. They work through the Suncoast Hospice, and occasionally they will go to an individual’s home if Hospice feels it necessary.
Entwistle said as soon as they arrive for a visit with the elderly patients, Zorro takes over.
“He’s excellent,” she said. “Many animals – and he’s one of them – seem to have a sense of when people need them. And it isn’t only patients in the nursing home, it is also staff. Often it is just as important for them as it is for the patients. Zorro seems to have a sense of when a person is really, really in need and will cuddle up to that particular person and be relaxed and allow himself to be petted for as long as is needed.”
Zorro may have been born with his calm personality, but he, like all other pet therapy animals, had to be screened. That is the job of an organization called Project PUP, which stands for Pets Uplifting People. The organization makes sure the pet is suitable to bring into a facility where there will be strange objects and unfamiliar people.
“He needs to be calm,” said Entwistle, describing the requirements Zorro had to meet. “There can be no jumping; he could hurt a frail person. He mustn’t grab for food, you want the dog to be occupied and focused on the person he’s there to visit.”
She said it is important that the dog be trained.
“He must obey the commands ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ and he must like to be cuddled. He can’t fight or fuss with anybody. He has to tolerate being petted all over his body,” she said.
Even dogs with calm demeanors, such as Zorro, encounter stress during their visits to nursing homes, the Project PUP website explains. The animals must tolerate noises, smells, objects and people who are strange to them. They must process all that and still remain calm. Pet therapy dogs often will sleep for long periods after a therapy session because they worked so hard.
Entwistle says her job, as a volunteer, isn’t stressful, but it is a commitment.
“You need to commit yourself to be there on the day you say you are going to be there,” she said. “It is not fair to the patients not to show up. If you commit to being there once a week, be there once a week, or once a month, or whatever.”
She does say volunteering has allowed her to repay her community for many of the things she has enjoyed over the years.
“I’m privileged to be at a point in my life where I have time,” she said. “Now I can give something back.”
She would recommend to anyone with time and a pet to engage in pet therapy.
“I get extreme satisfaction from this,” she said. “I have seen patients who haven’t moved for weeks, lift an arm to pet the dog. Others who never smile will do so when Zorro walks in. It gives me great joy and pleasure that my dog can make people smile.”
There are down moments of course. But even those are bittersweet, Entwistle said.
“I’m always sad when one of my patients is no longer there, but I’m happy that my dog made that person smile in their last days. That makes me feel good,” she explained.
To get involved in pet therapy, contact Project Pup in Seminole at 497-3005. Once your pet is screened, you can then volunteer at the institution of your choice, or where you might be needed.