AUSTINTOWN -- Sometimes the best human medicine comes on four legs.
Three dogs and their handlers happily walked down the halls at Humility House nursing home, visiting residents and bringing out smiles.
Bear, Vickie and Shannie wear purple vests, identifying them as members of K9s for Compassion, a group of 52 animals -- dogs, cats, rabbits and birds -- and 57 handlers who visit hospitals and nursing homes.
Bear is a 9-year-old chow-huskie mix; Vickie is an 8-year-old standard poodle; and Shannie is a 7-year-old golden retriever. Katie Costello and her husband Sam of Hubbard own Bear and Vickie (and five other dogs); Dave and Pat Shively of Lordstown own Shannie.
"We remove people from the setting they're in and take them to a happier place in their past," Katie Costello said.
As the residents crowd around, they talk about dogs they'd known.
"We lived on a farm. We lived in town, but we kept having children -- I had 14 -- so we moved to a large farm," said Laura Ann Sypert.
Some of the women admired Vickie, jealous of her thick curls.
"I am jealous, because I don't have much myself!" resident Marie DiPiero said.
Charter member
Katie Costello started K9s for Compassion in spring 2000, inspired by Munchkin, a dachshund/beagle mix owned by Katie's father, Tony Matola of Hubbard. Munchkin had been hit by a car, and was cared for by staff at Animal Charity in Youngstown who took her to visit nursing homes.
Costello was inspired by the love and happiness Munchkin brought to the residents she visited, and decided to investigate different national registries for therapy dogs.
"You can't just let any dog go into a hospital," she said. "I decided the most stringent rules are what are going to get us into the hospitals."
She picked the Delta Society because of the stringent requirements dogs must meet before becoming certified members.
Carol A. Knock of Warren is an evaluator for Delta Society in Southington Township and used to take Flint, her 11-year-old rough coated collie, to educational and care facilities.
The dogs must pass a test, half of which is obedience and half of which is aptitude, Knock explained. During the test, the dog can be bumped from behind or held by a stranger, among other things.
"The dogs must be very, very, very collected. If anything were to happen, they're just going to go 'uh-oh, help' and move away," she said.
After passing the test, dog and handler take a one-day class, and have a minimum of six mentoring sessions. For three of the sessions the handler observes another team; then the new team visits while an experienced handler observes, and then experienced dogs come along too.
Shannie and Dave Shively passed the test in April and completed their sixth mentoring session Tuesday.
"Shannie's pretty new at this, so she's trying hard to restrain herself and not kiss everybody," he said.
Shively said his mother-in-law and wife's aunt were residents at Humility House, and Shannie had visited them a couple times. His wife knows a member of K9s for Compassion. "We thought, why not test Shannie? I never thought she'd pass, but here we are," he said.
In addition to the obedience and aptitude, dogs must pass a veterinary check. Sam Costello, a vet with Town and Country in Howland, checks the dogs for K9s for Compassion.
"We go well above and beyond what Delta Society requires," Sam Costello said. "We cover all our bases."
Reason for precautions
She explained they carefully considered bacteria passed from people to animals, as well as from animals to people. Each handler carries a bottle of sanitizer so people who pet the dog can clean their hands.
"It's not that we're afraid of them passing anything, but that so many people pet them every day," she said. In addition, each dog must have a bath, its toenails clipped, and its teeth brushed within 24 hours of each visit.
Every two years, someone other than the owner re-evaluates the dog to make sure it is still fit to visit.
Dogs who are not members of K9s for Compassion also visit area nursing homes and hospitals. For example, Mary Robinson of Warren and her chocolate lab Hope visit Windsor House in Warren. Robinson and Hope are a certified Delta Society team.
Robinson said her father and father-in-law passed away in a nursing home, and she saw the healing benefits of canine visits to the lonely residents. Hope has lived up to her name, she said.
"It's very rewarding. I think I'm getting blessed more than the residents, seeing them light up," she said.

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