For residents of nursing homes or an assisted living facility, life might be a bit humdrum and unfamiliar to them, and many do not get a lot of visitors.

Many used to have pets, but they no longer do.

Therapy dogs can fill a big void in that area.

Nancy Bown, owner of Dog Harmony in Santa Rosa Beach, said therapy dogs are her specialty.

"I specialize in dog training," she said. "I am one of the few in Northwest Florida who teaches this."

Training for the dog is a minimum of 50 hours, and training for the owner is eight hours.

Bown tests twice a year.

Not all the dogs that enter the class end up being certified, however.

"Some dogs don't make it and some start and don't finish. If we see that a dog is not suited to be a therapy dog, we encourage the owner to do something else," she said.

The most important thing Bown looks for is temperament.

"They cannot be aggressive. They must be calm, walk well on a leash, not easily spooked by noises, and not jump up on people," she said.

Bown teaches therapy to about 25-30 dogs a year.

The dog also needs to be 1-1/2 years old to test, although it's good to begin socializing as a puppy.

A couple of the dogs Bown has rescued have become therapy dogs.

After being certified, the dog owner sets up appointments to go into a facility. Once there, they mostly greet residents and interact by allowing residents to pet them.

"The owner and dog go together to nursing homes. Sometimes residents do not have a lot of socialization. The biggest advantage to taking a therapy dog to a nursing home or hospital is it gives the patient unconditional love, as well as a bridge to communication," said Bown. "Patients who no longer have verbal skills you can see in their eyes that they are happy to have the visual stimulation and sense of touch. I have seen dementia patients who haven't spoken in a long time who will all of a sudden start speaking to the dog."

Lisa Wainwright of Somerby Assisted Living agrees.

"The main thing is it seems to provide is calmness and relaxation," she said. "Simply by petting the animals, you can tell the residents relax. It provokes great conversation and elicits memory for many, bringing back memories of pets in the past, an uncomplicated time in their lives perhaps. No one is without a smile when they are interacting with the animals. They immediately launch into stories of their children and grandchildren. The therapy dogs are always so loving, leaning into the residents while they are petted or offering their paw for a handshake. We love when they visit."

One who recently completed training is Stuart Ruffington Lillie and his owner Kent Lillie.

Stuart is a 2-1/2 year-old Pomeranian that was a couple of months old when he joined the Lillie household. Since then, Stuart has been through basic obedience classes and agility training with Bown, so getting certified as a therapy dog was fairly easy for him.

"We worked on obedience so that when we go to a facility he is well behaved, and I can walk away from him and he will stay," said Lillie.

Lillie said he will probably shadow Bown in the beginning before going out on his own.

"Hopefully we can bring some joy into other people's lives who may not otherwise have so much," he said.

Lillie and Stuart were one of six teams that trained and tested when they did.

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