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Therapy dogs brighten days of Masonic Village residents in Aleppo

| Thursday, June 5, 2014, 4:05 p.m.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Oliver, a 7-year-old golden retriever gives paw to Masonic Village resident Ruth Kulber during a visit from he and other certified therapy dogs on Thursday, May 29, 2014, inside the facility.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Masonic Village resident Stewart Morgan pets Oliver, a 7-year-old golden retriever as fellow resident Harriet Senkinc looks on during a visit from he and other certified therapy dogs on Thursday, May 29, 2014, inside the facility.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Masonic Village resident Betsy Jevon pets Kira, a 9-year-old golden retriever (left) and Gus, an 11-year-old golden retriever during a visit from certified therapy dogs on Thursday, May 29, 2014, inside the facility.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Masonic Village resident Ruth Meritt pets oliver, a 7-year-old golden retriever during a visit from certified therapy dogs on Thursday, May 29, 2014, inside the facility.

The room was quiet, but it was obvious the residents were getting antsy.

From their wheelchairs, they sat — focused on the hallway, watching for signs of their arrival. A few softly asked aloud, “Where are the dogs?”

When they finally got a glimpse of Gus and Oliver, the mood turned lighter.

“They just light up,” said Megan Zulauf, a music therapist who helps with therapeutic recreation at Masonic Village at Sewickley.

Though the program is not new, Zulauf said it has blossomed over the past year. Now, a group of about eight area volunteers take turns during the week bringing their certified therapy dogs to brighten the days of many of the residents of the Aleppo facility's Sturgeon Health Care Center.

Zulauf smiled as she glanced around the room at a handful of residents who were visiting with Gus and Oliver and chatting with the golden retrievers' Sewickley owners, Terry Rafalko and daughter Caylee. After a while, Lucas, a yellow labrador retriever, and Kira, another golden retriever — along with owners Diane Viall of Sewickley and Stephanie O'Kane of Edgeworth, respectively — joined them.

“They can never get enough of seeing the dogs. They bring out socialization and good memories,” Zulauf said.

Many of the residents had furry friends of their own before moving to Masonic Village.

Rita Meyer, a former dance instructor, had a dog named Dancer who she brought to the studio each day because she didn't want to leave it by itself throughout the day.

When her sister got home from work, she would call a taxi to drive Dancer home.

Another resident, Jim Phipps, said he's been an animal lover all of his life. He keeps a bulletin board of his “grand dogs” and “grand cats” in his room at Masonic Village. He said he enjoys spending time with the dogs that stop by.

Zulauf said she has seen the difference the dogs have made in some of the residents.

One man, who she said she hadn't heard speak more than a few words here and there, would talk to the dogs in full sentences.

“There's something special about an animal that is so loving. I think just the act of petting calms and brings joy,” Zulauf said.

O'Kane said she began bringing Kira to Masonic Village because she thought the animal would “really do well at it,” she said. She was inspired by people like the Rafalkos and has been making visits since January.

Terry Rafalko said she loves spending time and bringing her dogs to visit the residents.

“I love making new friends here. (The program) makes people so happy,” she said.

Kristina Serafini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1405 or kserafini@tribweb.com.

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