Diane Hutchison / WILDERWOOD

Diane is the Activities Coordinator at Asbury Place Maryville for 12 years.  Asbury Place Maryville, is a continuing care retirement community located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.  Several years ago, Asbury Place Maryville partnered with Wilderwood on a program that has brought about wonderful results for their residents.   

The program was not anything we planned for but happened quite randomly after Nikki, from Wilderwood, reached out to us about bringing dogs in on a regular basis.  We agreed and the program has been running now for several years.  

Nikki brings several dogs out on a regular basis – different breeds and sizes – and the residents love it and look forward to it.  You can see a change in their attitude and body language as soon as they see the dogs coming in.  

I have several residents who had dogs either as a child or an adult and it is amazing to see the look on their face whenever they see the dog.  You can tell it reaches a part of their heart that only a dog can reach. 

One resident had a German Shepherd in her young married life that had a special place in her heart.  When the dogs come in she says she can’t touch the dog but she will watch them. She said she is afraid if she touches the dog she will fall in love with it and it will hurt when the dog leaves. She associates these dogs with loss but, even more, she associates them with love.   

One of the most surprising things for me is that the residents with some form of dementia do not remember Nikki but they remember the dogs.   You will hear them telling the dog, “I’ve missed you.” Some of them remember having a dog as a child and recall that special bond. For them, a dog brings a sense of home. 

The University of Tennessee has people who bring their personal dogs in on a regular basis but it is a very different program from what we do with Wilderwood.  The Wilderwood dogs are all trained therapy dogs and are incredibly well-behaved. They are calm around wheelchairs and walkers and know how to approach a person lying in bed.  With the other program, they can only stay for an hour at a time but Nikki and her dogs are here for a longer period of time and, therefore, have an impact on more people. It is truly a wonderful thing to witness.  For some of these residents, the only thing I can do for them is bring in a dog. It makes their day and, for some, the only time I see them smile is when the dog comes in.  

A visit from the dog raises their spirit, gives them a chance to tell stories about dogs they had and, even if for a moment, eases their pain, sadness and loneliness. 

The dog’s impact is not isolated to the residents – it also impacts the staff and family members.    When the dogs come in everyone wants to pet them and it helps them relax. 

Research has shown the benefit of pet therapy on those living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.  When a dog is present, there is an overall reduction in stress, anxiety and depression, serotonin and dopamine are released which has a calming and soothing effect.  For those with Alzheimer’s it can decrease unwanted behaviors and quiet agitation. There is also a drop in blood pressure. 

We don’t have to go around with blood pressure cuffs to see how impactful a dog really is – we simply have to look around the room at the faces of the people.  

Whenever the dogs come in, the first thing I notice is the smile on the faces of the staff, the residents and family members.  It is not a fake, polite smile but a genuine, big-hearted smile. The dogs truly reach everyone’s heart and brighten their day.  It helps put everyone at ease and when the dogs are there, people are laughing and happy.  

We are grateful to Nikki and Wilderwood for providing Asbury Place Maryville with this program – and we are immensely grateful to the dogs for providing such happy moments and memories for our residents, staff and family members.