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East County Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2018 1 week ago

Puppy love unleashed in Lakewood Ranch

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Nate's Honor Animal Rescue pups paired with elderly.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Eighty-year-old Erna Munsell plopped into a community room chair at The Windsor of Lakewood Ranch with a glimmer in her eye.

She waited patiently as her new love, Elvis, was busy trying to steal the heart of another resident. Moments later, though, Munsell engulfed Elvis, a white-and-tan hound puppy, in her arms.

“I get to flirt with a puppy,” Munsell said, as Elvis licked her ear. “I come up here as soon as I know the puppies are here. I love puppies. I think it’s wonderful.”

It is wonderful, according to Tina Pierce, the Myakka City resident and volunteer with Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue who is spearheading a new program, Puppies with Purpose. Every Saturday morning, Pierce and her friend Sheri Swantek take puppies to The Windsor, an  assisted living facility, and Windsor Reflections, a memory-care residence, to visit residents. Puppies are between 7 and 10 weeks old, too young for formal therapy dog certifications, but old enough to safely be out in the

public.

After a few minutes on Munsell’s lap, Swantek found Elvis a new friend. Pierce took an orange-colored lab mix, Barney, to the lap of 84-year-old Elsa Moon. Barney climbed forward on her shoulder and then settled in her lap.

“He loves you, Elsa!” Pierce said with a smile.

Moon grinned. She said it made her “happy.”

It’s why Pierce is so passionate about the program.

Before moving to the area two years ago, Pierce volunteered at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia, where she ran a similar puppy therapy program. She took puppies to nursing homes and arranged for other volunteers to do the same. Eventually, they took puppies to seven facilities each week.

Donna Mokrzynski pets Barnie, held by Puppies with Purpose lead volunteer Tina Pierce.

When she moved to Florida, the opportunity did not exist. Every rescue group Pierce approached said no. Dogs needed to be certified “pet therapy” animals, they said. There were too many restrictions. Pierce was frustrated and vented online.

“I know how therapeutic this is,” Pierce said. “I have to do this.”

Dari Oglesby, executive director of Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue, answered the call, and the Puppies with Purpose partnership began in March. Pierce agreed to lead the team of volunteers and handle scheduling.

“It’s a win-win for both,” Oglesby said. “Not only do the puppies get socialization, but it enriches the lives of the residents as well. It’s also our responsibility as a nonprofit organization to give back to the community that supports it. Programs such as this one is a great way to do that.”

The hardest part so far is having puppies ready for service each week.

“They get adopted so fast that we literally have to hold them back for adoption for a few days just to make sure we have them for our Saturday morning visit,” Oglesby said.

With the program fine-tuned, she and Pierce now hope to expand, if more volunteers sign up to participate. They envision puppy visits at multiple locations throughout the community and on multiple days per week.

Oglesby said she even hopes to incorporate a puppy area in Nate’s future 20,000-square-foot welcome and adoption center, so they could host field trips.

Jessica McGuire, customer service associate at Windsor Reflections, said the therapy is great for residents. It helps them with agitation and other behavioral issues related to memory loss.

“If somebody doesn’t typically talk, they’ll talk to the puppies,” she said.

Pierce said those moments are special.

“In Georgia, there was a patient who had a stroke and he had never (moved) after that,” Pierce said. “We put a puppy in his lap and he moved his hand. His wife burst into tears.”

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