When Dick Morrison puts on his vest, he knows it's time to work. So does his French bulldog, Jillian.
Now a little over 4 years old, Jillian has been working for quite some time, and when she dons her vest that bears a patch which tells the world she's a therapy dog, she gets right down to business. Morrison has been taking Jillian to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals for a couple of years now. And she seems to enjoy it just as much as the patients do.
Morrison currently takes Jilly to Cypress Pond, Golden Living and to the transitional unit at Tift Regional Medical Center. He's been doing so since his move to Tifton in July.
Morrison said his wife passed away five years ago in Florida, and he moved to Virginia to be near his daughter. During that time, he became attached to the French bulldog, Bella, owned by his daughter and her family.
"She was the belle of the ball. Susan (his daughter) says, 'Would you like to have one?' and I says, it would be nice for the company," he said. He soon got a call from her.
"She asked how much I'd like to spend on a dog. I said I'd probably go about $500. She called back about a half hour later and said, 'Get your check ready, we've got a dog for you.' They didn't tell me how much she really cost; I just wrote my check and I put 'downpayment' on it, and we just went from there," he said, laughing.
As Morrison became acquainted with some people in that area through the puppy classes he took Jillian to, he learned about the therapy dogs program, and became interested. He said it took about two years for Jillian to be properly trained and to pass the test to be a therapy dog.
The task is daunting when it comes to getting a dog prepared to work as a therapy dog, but Morrison said the rewards are great. But people often get derailed when they learn of the requirements – and the cost.
"People start out enthusiastic," he said. "They don't realize there's so much work or expense. So they often don't follow through. There's an extensive process and a lot is involved."
But for Morrison, seeing what it does for others makes it all worthwhile.
"I know it makes their heart rate go down, and they relax a little bit. That's the most benefits," he said. "It does the same for me. I get sort of moody sometimes. I have a short fuse. It helps me slow down a bit and take another look at things."
For Jilly, "she's always ready to go."
"When she puts that (vest) on, she knows she's got to go to work. I carry a fanny pack with her treats, and she wears a diaper, since she had back surgery a year or so ago. She wears Pampers," Morrison said, adding with a laugh that he had to learn how to put them on, since his children wore cloth diapers.
When they pay a visit to a facility, Jillian rides in a stroller, which is more for Morrison than for her. He says he constantly has to pick her up, which is "fine a time or two, but can get to be too much." The staff usually visits with her for a while, he said, then she gets down to the business of visiting residents and patients.
At the transitional unit, they are escorted in and out, and they are allowed to go room to room, spending about 15 minutes in each. There are an average of eight to nine patients there at any given time, he said.
"Some of them are dog or cat lovers; some of them aren't lovers at all. But we give them a little enjoyment for a little while," he said.
Morrison said there are other therapy dogs in Tifton that he knows of, and he's hoping there will soon be an organized group that can do the same sort of work he does.
"If anyone is interested, they can contact me, and I'll give them all the information they need," he said.
Volunteering is something that is important to Morrison, who says he doesn't like to sit around. "I like to stay busy," he said. He volunteers as a conductor at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture, and he also volunteers at the Tifton-Tift County Library. Jillian will soon be volunteering at the library as well.
"We will be working with Paws for Reading," Morrison said. The program, which will begin in early 2014, will help school-age children with their reading skills.
"I'll ask them to help Jilly pronounce a word or to read to her," he said. "It will help them, and she'll enjoy it." At this point, Morrison says Jilly is the only dog that will be part of the Paws program, but he's hopeful more will be involved once the program gets off the ground.
Until it does get off the ground, Morrison said he and Jilly will be content to keep bringing joy to others with their visits.
"It's been fun. I've had fun and she's had fun, too. At least, I think she has," he says with a grin.
To learn more about the therapy dogs program, contact Therapy Dogs Inc. at 1-877-843-7364 or go online at www.therapy dogs.com. You can reach Morrison at 229-396-5596.
To contact editor Angye Morrison, call 382-4321.