Saint Francis Service Dogs: Team Warwick Forest Assisted Living and Memory Care and Walker

Walker is the first facility dog we have placed in an assisted living and memory care setting. In a healthcare setting, we have seen how facility dogs increase patient motivation, functional outcome goals, social interaction, language development, and morale among patients and staff. At the time of application, Warwick Forest was looking for innovative methods to assist and involve patients in skill based activities, as well as to provide a positive focus in redirecting frustration and confusion. They also noted that reaching certain patients was a challenge. They hoped a facility dog could bridge gaps for patients who often do not otherwise respond to staff. They were looking for a dog that could increase resident participation, mitigate resident frustration when they find they cannot do things they once could, and assist in cognitive, social, and fine motor skill activities. In the memory care neighborhood, resident socialization, anxiety, agitation, and redirection were also important. In a facility setting, where the dog will interact with many people in many ways, we often look for dogs with specific strengths and character traits. A go get-em attitude is a must to keep energy for long periods of time and through many different kinds of interactions. Attentiveness is important to be able to focus on and respond to their handler when dealing with the distractions of a facility setting. Most importantly, a dog that has a lot of love and spirit to give and share with the many people they work with is a must. Walker has all of this and more, and the team at Warwick Forest say he was more than worth the wait. Walker was puppy raised in California by longtime members of the Saint Francis Family, Ryan and Katie Reed. A few weeks after Walker arrived, Katie was diagnosed with cancer. We immediately started working on a return trip for Walker to let Katie focus on her health, but Ryan and Katie asked if they could keep him. She said that raising Walker gave her a reason to get up each day – something meaningful to focus on during a time of hardship and stress. At just a few months old, Walker’s loving, playful spirit was changing lives in ways we never expected. In addition to bringing him through our standard puppy curriculum of obedience, manners, socialization, and beginning task work, the Reeds also brought him along to doctor’s visits, treatments, and therapies. We wholeheartedly believe that these experiences lead to Walker’s eventual placement as a facility dog. We are forever grateful to Ryan and Katie, who is doing great now, for the love and care they poured into Walker to prepare him for his future, and we are thankful that Walker could be with them when they needed him most. At the end of his first year, Walker flew back across the country to begin Advanced Training. Walker worked with our trainer, Robby Thomas, over the course of the next year. At the time, Robby also served as our Kennel Manager, so Walker came to work at Saint Francis every day. Our entire staff would likely first and foremost describe him as goofy. Robby noted that he had an excellent “tug” command and great position work, but that his favorite commands to perform were “visit” – where he would be released from Robby’s side to spend time with whoever was around, massive tail wags included – and “cover” – where he would place his head in any open lap to get his fill of head pets and ear rubs. He is a gregarious, loving dog who has never met a stranger – exactly the kind of dog that Warwick Forest was looking for to serve their residents. Walker was matched with Warwick Forest at the height of the COVID pandemic. We were truly in uncharted waters, but the support of Newport News Shipbuilding and our Saint Francis Family gave us the stability to move forward and find solutions to the challenges presented by our new reality. Part of their matching interview also occurred over Zoom, as well as much of team training. In February 2021, after successfully completing training with his handler, Walker was able to begin working with the residents of Warwick Forest, and we could not be more excited. Walker serves them in a variety of ways. He goes on public outings with the assisted living residents. He carries their grocery baskets, bumps open doors, and helps with transactions. At the facility, he drags laundry baskets to the laundry room, delivers mail, plays cornhole (though his handler, Garnet, says he is becoming a bit of a cheat!), and encourages resident participation. In the memory care neighborhood, Garnet reports that he has been extremely beneficial in relieving stress and confusion and that there have been significant moments of reminiscent therapy because of Walker, where residents will tell stories from their childhood and talk about pets they’ve owned themselves through the years. She told us one story in particular of a resident who, each day, staff would have to spend hours convincing her to get out of her bed. Now that Walker has come into her life, things have changed. She is eager to wake up and start each day. Walker is an ongoing presence in her life and keeps her motivation up.

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