Budding therapy dog calming presence in dementia wing

The residents of the Memory Care Wing at The Commons of Hilltop such as Lon Suplizio, left and Fern Honstein have taken to Rez, the first dog to participate in a pilot program to train rescued dogs to be therapy dogs.

They may not remember the names or faces of their loved ones. But the residents of Hilltop’s Memory Care Wing at The Commons all know Rez.

The scruffy, apricot-colored canine who first scampered into the wing five months ago makes herself at home during the eight to nine hours she spends Monday through Friday in the wing’s common areas and bedrooms. She hops up on the couch next to residents to watch TV with them, curls up in the crook of their legs when they’re sick in bed, and sneaks a nibble when residents forget they aren’t supposed to offer her people food.

Rez’s owner, Memory Care Program Coordinator Joni Karp, brings Rez with her to work specifically so the pooch can bond with the wing’s residents, who all have dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or both. Karp hopes to make Rez Hilltop’s first in-house therapy dog.

“We have therapy dogs who visit but none here all day like her,” Karp said.

Rez is a few weeks into the second of three levels of obedience training at PetSmart, after which she will be able to take tests to become a certified companion dog and therapy animal. She is already honing her craft by helping residents who had to give up animals to come to the Memory Care Wing feel more at home and providing a comforting presence when residents become agitated with the struggles of dementia.

Karp said one resident in particular turns to Rez when she gets frustrated and needs to calm down.

“She calls her Jo, but she actively seeks her out,” Karp said.

There was a time when Rez was the one who needed comfort. A good Samaritan found her as a puppy infested with ticks. She was struggling to stay alive after she was dropped off at a gas station near White Mesa Indian Reservation in southeastern Utah. The good Samaritan brought her to Mt. Peale Animal Sanctuary in La Sal, Utah, where she was nursed back to health.

The owners of Mt. Peale Animal Sanctuary told their friend, Karp, that Rez needed a good home. Karp was tempted but not sure she could be a good caretaker to a dog because of all the time she spends at work. Then she had the idea to bring Rez with her to work and make her into Hilltop’s first in-house therapy dog. The idea was one already being pondered by Hilltop executives and Karp got the green light to bring Rez to the Memory Care Wing.

Now a little over a year old, Rez is likely about two and a half months away from taking tests to become a certified companion dog and therapy animal. Hilltop may expand its therapy animal program to other departments if things continue to go well with Rez, Karp said. She’s pretty sure Hilltop will be impressed with Rez’s performance.

“She’s just a special little dog,” Karp said. “She’s just a love.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Memory Care Wing resident Lon Suplizio.

“Everybody who knows her loves her,” she said.


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