The Times West Virginian

February 13, 2014

Visits with therapy dog ‘rewarding experience’ for veterans

By Chelsi Baker
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — As a therapy dog, Pebbles warms the hearts — and laps — of area nursing home and hospital patients.

Owner Sharon Stevock brings Pebbles to visit patients regularly with the hopes of making their day a little better and taking their mind off their illness.

While she visits several area nursing homes and hospitals, she especially enjoys going to the Veterans Nursing Facility and the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg to do something special for veterans.

“What better way to spend your time than to spend it with someone who has served your country and fought for your freedom?” Stevock said.

This week is National Salute to Veteran Patients Week, a time every year dedicated to encouraging citizens to visit hospitalized veterans and become volunteers to pay tribute to those who have served their country.

Pebbles visited with veteran patients Tuesday, wagging her tail while donning a military costume, complete with a beret and gold stars.

As soon as Stevock laid her blanket on a patient’s bed, Pebbles was ready to snuggle. She curled up next to them and lay down, moving only to allow them to rub her belly or to nestle into a warmer position.

Pebbles, a 5-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, wasn’t always as comfortable around people, though. She was a rescue dog, taken from a puppy mill in Ohio, where she was mistreated.

She came to Stevock hand-shy and skittish. Stevock helped Pebbles overcome her fears before she started obedience training, which led to therapy dog training through a prominent company called Therapy Dogs Inc.

Now, she is confident and friendly, Stevock said.

“She’s pretty laid back, and she likes being around people,” she said. “I think with her background and her being a rescue dog, it helps some patients overcome fears they have knowing the story that she has.”

Stevock has seen therapy dogs make a difference in patients’ lives. Reactions range from smiles and laughter to medical progress. One patient who had not made much progress after falling into a coma actually moved during a visit, she said.

Residents in the West Virginia Veterans Nursing Facility have health problems ranging from injuries requiring short-term rehabilitation to severe mental illnesses like dementia. They have all served their country in one branch of the military or another.

For many patients, no matter their condition, a visit from Pebbles is the best part of their day.

Some patients fell head over heels for Pebbles during Tuesday’s visit, immediately calling her over to them. They told Stevock stories about their own pets as Pebbles lay beside them.

“It’s a very rewarding experience because so many of the residents and patients see very little of the outside,” said Stevock. “They don’t have family, or they have illnesses. When a dog comes in and they get to spend time with it, it takes their mind off their issues. It makes me feel good that I’m able to brighten somebody else’s day.”

The Veterans Nursing Facility brings in many volunteers to help with events and visit patients not only during National Salute to Veteran Patients Week, but all year long. Patients are humble about their military service, and volunteers remind them they are appreciated for what they’ve done, said recreation assistant Pam Hillberry.

“I think it’s very good for them,” she said. “It’s wonderful that (Stevock) takes her time and comes here. I feel you can’t do too much for them. They gave all. They gave everything they had when they went in there to fight for our country and to fight for our freedom. I think it’s time to give back to them.”

Email Chelsi Baker at cbaker@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @cbakerTWV.