Beth Deal of Southwest and her dog, Willie, graduate from the Canine Crusaders Ministry at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at Windermere.
While many dogs enjoy chasing squirrels, going for walks or fetching their owners’ slippers, one special group of caring canines goes beyond traditional dog duties to bring love and joy to those who need it most.
Founded by Winter Garden resident Valerie Almos in 2000, St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at Windermere’s Canine Crusaders Ministry is a unique group of dogs and their owners who have successfully completed an intensive 10-week training program to become specialized canine therapy teams.At least once a month, owners and their four-legged do-gooders visit local nursing homes, shut-ins, homeless centers, rehab centers and medical facilities, including Dr. P. Phillips Hospital and Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
“Canine Crusaders has allowed us the unique opportunity of getting a chance to visit with the folks in various assisted-living facilities, nursing homes and rehab centers in west Orange County,” said Cosette Arnold of Gotha, who visits with her Rhodesian Ridgeback, Chumlee. “They provided us with months of training and advice. Now, I feel like we have so many little, yet great opportunities to break up the routine and bring a moment of fun into the lives of some very precious people.”Open to the entire community, the program welcomes almost every dog breed.“Some dogs are quicker than others, but it doesn’t matter as long as they have two bright eyes, a cold nose and a wagging tail,” Valerie said. “The patients just love them.”Participants are required to give a one-year commitment and must be at least 10 years old. However, children must be accompanied by a parent for visits. To date, Valerie has graduated almost 300 teams of dogs and owners.“Dogs are so intuitive,” Valerie said. “They just know when something is not right. Even the young dogs can instinctively know if someone needs extra-special love — and they love unconditionally.”Valerie, who has more than 35 years of experience breeding and showing dogs around the U.S., was inspired to create Canine Crusaders after suffering the loss of her husband and undergoing a major surgery.“After I started feeling better, I wanted to do something to give back,” she said. “From experience, I know how lonely nursing homes can be. With America being such a vast country, families are spread apart, and it’s not always convenient to go and see your parents. And it makes a huge difference to get visitors when you’re in a nursing home.”Valerie and her team have crafted a highly specialized program that utilizes both obedience and agility training, preparing the dogs to walk over hospital cords and around equipment, be comfortable around wheelchairs, and accommodate the needs of each patient.“Everyone is getting so much out of it,” said Valerie, who admitted it brings tears to her eyes when she hears a certain patient call to her Cavalier, Harry. “When you get going with the visiting, it becomes a very happy, emotional thing. The people we visit get so attached to the dogs. It’s amazing.”
“My favorite visit is with one elderly lady at the nursing home,” said Andrea Monaco of Ocoee, who visits with her yellow Labrador mix, Giallo. “I don’t know what her medical ailments are, but she can no longer speak. Every time I go, she’s sitting in her wheelchair against the wall in the hallway. Her head is down, her eyes are closed, her hands are folded in her lap. I take her hand and place it on his head and help her to pet him, talking softly to her all the time. She smiles a crooked smile and begins making little high-pitched sounds of joy. Giallo wags his tail, and she smiles even more. My heart is full to overflowing because I know I made a difference, however small, in that dear lady’s life. And my Canine Crusader, Giallo, was the key that unlocked the door to her soul for a few moments of joy and hope.”Current medical research confirms that contact with animals can play a significant role in reducing anxiety, depression and loneliness, along with helping to lower heart rate and blood pressure.Owners receive tremendous benefits from the training, as well.
The 2012 graduates of the Canine Crusaders Ministry at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at Windermere visit local nursing homes, homeless shelters, medical facilities and more.
“By the time you have finished the classes, you will all have a closer bond with your dog than you ever thought possible,” Valerie tells her students. “It is hard work, but God never gives us more than we can handle, and the joy you will receive with this therapy work cannot be put into words. When you’ve graduated and you make your visits, please take Kleenex, because you may need them. Having a trained therapy dog is a gift from God, and when you use your knowledge and bring joy to those who need it most, that is your gift to God.”
For more information about Canine Crusaders Ministry, visit www.st.lukes.org/ministries/caregiving on the Web.
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