Free smiles, Free kisses: Therapy dog brings joy to Veterans Home

Published 5:42 am Wednesday, January 29, 2020

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RESERVE — Inside Katie Scarlett’s French armoire are 42 outfits she’s worn to bring smiles to residents at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home in Reserve. Only, Katie Scarlett isn’t a typical volunteer.

She’s a licensed therapy dog whose greatest trick is relieving anxiety, loneliness and depression. Residents of the Veterans Home in Reserve are met with cuddles and kisses every Tuesday morning. On Friday, Jan. 25, residents and staff members gathered to celebrate Katie Scarlett’s fourth birthday with a Cinderella-themed celebration complete with a royal carriage cake.

The lucky pup has lived her own Cinderella story, according to owner/dog mama Iris Terrio.

“Scarlett came from a puppy mill,” Terrio said. “She came to me with coccidian, a disease from the puppy eating the feces of the mother. She was covered in ear mites. She was so sick she couldn’t keep food down. She saw four veterinarians within the first 36 hours I had her.”

Katie Scarlett’s health made a 180-degree turn, and she continues to thrive as a loyal companion and a therapy dog. She’s visited the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home weekly since 2016, from the time she was four months old. She also visited Ashton Manor in St. Charles Parish for 2.5 years to bring comfort to a family friend who was in the memory care ward. Terrio is considering bringing her to St. James Parish Hospital in the future.

Therapy dogs relieve anxiety, loneliness and depression among residents at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home.

Katie Scarlett is a tiny Maltese, Pomeranian and Chihuahua mix that fits perfectly in a person’s lap. Not all dogs are fit to be therapy dogs, however.

“When I saw her personality, I thought she would be a perfect therapy dog,” Terrio said. “She’s understanding and intuitive. She’s very calm, gentle and loving, and she doesn’t see scars or disfigurement. She doesn’t see disabilities or color. She loves everyone she meets.”

Katie Scarlett developed a special bond with a resident with Parkinson’s disease who recently passed away. When he held her, his hands would become still.

“There are two veterans in the four years I’ve been here where she actually jumped into their laps,” Terrio said. “A dog can see your soul, and she loved these men wholeheartedly.”

Many residents of the home love to hold Katie Scarlett and tell Terrio stories of the dogs they once owned.

Southeast Louisiana Veterans Home team member Gina Cazabat has worked in long-term care for more than 20 years, and she’s seen firsthand the impact therapy dogs can have.

Veterans stop by for some cake at a Cinderella birthday bash held in honor of their furry friend and frequent visitor, Katie Scarlett.

While Katie Scarlett visits weekly, there are a number of German Shepherds, Boxers and Welsh Corgis who come to see the veterans on a monthly basis.

When working in St. Charles Parish years ago, Cazabat used to bring her incredibly intuitive Labrador to work.

“They make a huge difference,” Cazabat said. “I’ve seen residents crying hysterically, and when a pet comes up to them, they completely stop. They pet them and relax. It’s amazing how it calms anxiety.”

Coming face to face with a pet seems to transport people to another state of mind, according to Cazabat.

“I think it gives them a little sense of home,” Cazabat said. “Ms. Scarlett is precious. The veterans wait for her to come every week. A lot of people have pets and they can’t bring them here, so she brings that light to their day when she comes visit and makes them feel like there are in their own home.”

When Terrio first looked into therapy dog licensing in 2016, there were no available programs in Louisiana. Katie Scarlett is licensed through The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs LLC, based in New Jersey. However, she had to pass a Canine Good Citizen test at a local Petco to earn the title.

The 10-part assessment ensures licensed therapy dogs are receptive to friendly strangers without resentment or shyness. A therapy dog must be able to follow commands and stay in place without seeing their owner for a period of time.

A prospective therapy dog cannot react to other dogs or panic in distracting situations, such as when seeing a person roll a dolly or drop a cane nearby.