New Berlin - A banana split that barks and a pumpkin with four furry feet paid a visit recently to elderly and memory care residents of Heritage at Deer Creek.
In one way, it was a special treat for those residents as a half-dozen big burly canines and two puppies, all from the Big Bend-based German Shepherd Dog Club of Wisconsin, came to the New Berlin center at 3585 S. 147th St. in Halloween costumes.
That treat also held a few unexpected tricks. For instance, the doggy devil-for-a-day kept knocking her horns off, and the banana split kept sliding toward the floor. The Halloween orange tutu, the "Trick or Treat" T-shirt and bandannas stayed on pretty well, though.
But in another way, costumes aside, the visit is part of an important routine - the residents get monthly visits from the club and its dogs.
The visit are purposeful.
"Animals and elderly people connect very, very well," said Ron Labinski, New Berlin, who with his wife, Camille, brings their dogs most every month.
It's Camille who organizes the club's visits, and she can appreciate what impact dogs can have on people.
"The dogs bring us joy and we're spreading it," Camille said.
They've been doing it for more than a decade - ever since the center's activities director at the time called the club wondering if they could bring some well-behaved dogs over to stimulate the memory care residents. They were delighted to help, Camille said.
It didn't take long, after the word of their visits got around, for their audiences to swell to include people coming from the rehab unit, assisted living and even the apartments there.
Memory care people still make up about half the audiences, and they are always surprised and pleased with the dogs, no matter how many shows they've attended, Ron said.
Understanding the audience
Not surprisingly, some of the residents repeat themselves as they recount about the pets they used to have - "sometimes it's two or three times in the same evening," he acknowledged.
One fellow wanted to know how much the dogs eat and was surprised that they pack away about a pound and a half of food a day. Fifteen minutes later, that same fellow came back, observing to Ron that the dogs probably eat a lot.
But Ron and the other owners just take just the repetition in stride and react as if they were having the conversations for the first time.
"Oh, we just go right along with it," Ron said, noting that the club would still visit even if every audience member was unable to retain any memory of their visit by the time they get back to their rooms.
The animal factor
Heritage tries hard to bring in stimulating experiences from the outside, said Wendy Marzion, activities director for the last four years, and animals are some of the best. The Wisconsin Humane Society brings pets in also, she added.
Feedback the club has heard from the home confirms that.
There are smiles everywhere, and some of the residents were even seen later looking for the dogs, Ron said.
Indeed, Marzion said the dogs' visits spark memory and bring people out of their present state to remember how things felt before.
"It's almost like the body is holding your spirit in and the dogs bring that out," she said. "We're very thrilled they come."
Making a contribution
"They have such a nonlife - anything to brighten up their day is a tremendously positive thing," Ron noted.
And it's more than that. In a way, it's contributing to our common humanity, Ron said.
"It's a contribution that can be made in a nonmonetary way," he said. "Anybody can write a check."
Coming to the center isn't always a treat for the Labinskis, they admit. Once in a while it's a drag going out in the dark or the rain for their visits, Ron said.
"But when the evening starts, we're really glad we came," he said. "It's so worthwhile."
IT'S A DOG'S LIFE
Dogs in the German Shepherd Dog Club of Wisconsin, based in Big Bend, lead busy lives along with their more than 200 owners. In addition to visiting residents of Heritage at Deer Creek, club dogs perform demonstrations or just strut their stuff at many events including:
High interest days at area schools
Fourth of July parade in Menomonee Falls
The Milwaukee Christmas parade
Demonstrations for Scout troops
The Humane Animal Welfare Society Pet Walkathon
Oktoberfest that used to be held in Glendale
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