It was a hot afternoon for mid September as the residents of the Golden Living Center in Westminster gathered on the facility's back patio, but no one seemed to mind the warmth. The attention of the dozen or so people gathered, was focused solely on something with a cold, wet nose: Rio and his wagging tail.
Rio is an 11-month-old sight-hound mix dog visiting as part of the Humane Society of Carroll County's new pet therapy program. Playful — he chased around the reflection from the face of a watch like a cat — but mellow and friendly, Rio greeted each resident eagerly, accepting petting, shaking when asked and earning smiles.
"I just think he's wonderful … he's very gentle," said Gail Breeback, a center resident since April. "I think it would be great to let Rio run through and take care of us."
Wednesday was the first visit from the Humane Society, but Executive Director Charles Brown said he would like to begin bringing at least one animal by every two weeks.
"I've done this kind of program at every shelter I have been at, and it's just a great way to get out in the community and get that outreach," said Brown, who has worked at shelters in Key West, Florida, Terre Haute, Indiana and places in between. "It's good for the dog, obviously, because it gets the dog out of the kennel … And judging from the folks here, people love it."
When the Humane Society first approached the Golden Living Center about starting a pet therapy program, Activity Director Cynthia Hughes said she was thrilled given how positively the center residents responded to animals. Many times, she said, a person who has difficulty speaking will brighten and make a connection with an animal in a way not otherwise possible.
"I told them any time they would like to come, they love animals here," Hughes said. "They never forget an animal. Animals, their religion or singing — they never forget that."
If the Humane Society can get more volunteers interested in helping with pet therapy programs, Brown said, the organization might be able to expand to other facilities in Carroll County and bring other animals out, such as cats or bunnies, a prospect that excited center resident Glenda Skinner, who had greatly enjoyed shaking Rio's paw.
"I can't wait. Dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs — I love the animals," she said.
Brown also said he hopes getting animals like Rio out of the shelter more often will increase the likelihood that someone will adopt them. Rio, he said, needs a permanent home.
"He is definitely a very elegant dog. He still has a lot of play in him at 11-months-old, but at the same time he settles very quickly and he is very eager to please," Brown said. "He would be an excellent dog with children, or older folks. He really is one of those dogs that is going to try to mold in to whatever kind of lifestyle his owners have."