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Former shelter pup brightens lives as therapy dog

By Amy Robinson, A&E/Teen Editor
Photo courtesy of JIM WILMOTH
Bailey, who is now in his teens, has been a therapy dog for 12 years. He and owner Jim Wilmoth visit hospitals, nursing homes, hospice care, schools and libraries.

Bailey is what’s known as a foster failure.

In February 2002, the golden retriever was a few years old when he arrived at the Putnam County Animal Shelter as a stray. He was adopted, but when the owner had to move, he couldn’t find a place that would allow Bailey. Jim Wilmoth, of Hurricane, a shelter volunteer, stepped in to foster Bailey until a new home was found.

As it turns out, that new home was his own.

Wilmoth and Bailey have been together for 12 years, and they’re a team in more ways than one. Beside being owner and pet, they’re a certified animal therapy duo.

It was at a shelter-sponsored Halloween party about six months after Wilmoth adopted Bailey that the therapy dog idea occurred to him.

“I noticed how at ease he was with strangers and children. He was so comfortable, so gentle. I thought, ‘This dog would make a really good therapy dog.’”

Wilmoth had been an unofficial therapy dog handler previously; he took his old golden retriever to Thomas Memorial Hospital, in South Charleston, first to visit his mother when she was a patient and then to visit the staff and other patients.

He recognized the traits that would make Bailey suited for such work.

“Bailey is just the ideal therapy animal,” he said. “He is gentle. He approaches people very easily. He doesn’t beg for attention; he doesn’t force himself on anyone. He will sit beside someone, and if they want to pet him, fine. If not, he’ll just sit there. And he’s not intimidated by anyone. He’s an exceptional dog.”

Wilmoth and Bailey are certified through Pet Partners, previously the Delta Society.

“They’re the largest animal therapy organization in the world,” Wilmoth said. “They have thousands and thousands of teams all over the world.”

And those teams don’t just involve dogs. “They evaluate cats, rabbits, miniature ponies, alpacas — a whole variety of animals.”

Wilmoth started his training in October 2002, and he and Bailey were certified about nine months later. On July 1, the two will start their 12th year of service.

The certification process begins with an extensive training course for the handler, which can be taken online through the Pet Partners website (petpartners.org).

Once the handler passes that, it’s time for the team test with his or her dog.

Wilmoth said there are no testing locations in West Virginia, but ones in Ohio and Kentucky are within an easy drive.

The evaluation has 20 items that test temperament, behavior and obedience. Both dog and owner must pass.

“I am graded just like Bailey is graded,” Wilmoth said. “Bailey can do great, but if I screw up, we have to go back and do it again.”

Once that test is passed, the team becomes certified. Every two years, they must retake the team test for recertification.

After certification, the team can begin doing therapy visits. Wilmoth and Bailey visit nursing homes and hospice care in addition to all three Charleston Area Medical Center hospitals, Thomas Memorial and St. Mary’s, in Huntington.

They have been to schools and libraries in several counties, and last weekend they visited athletes at the Special Olympics.

The duo visits different wings at the different hospitals, including the cancer unit at CAMC Memorial, the rehab and behavioral medicine wings at CAMC General and pediatrics at CAMC Women and Children’s. They’ve also visited intensive-care patients through staff and family requests.

“It’s been nonstop,” Wilmoth said. “It’s the best job I could ever have asked for. I truly enjoy going to visit, and I love the people we meet. The responses we get make it all worthwhile.

“I’m very fortunate to have Bailey get me started. If it hadn’t been for him, I’m not sure I would have gotten involved to this extent.”

Wilmoth does pet therapy visits two days a week every week.

Over the years, he said, he’s been on “hundreds and hundreds of visits and met thousands of people.”

One experience in particular stands out.

“At Hospice House many years ago, we met a fellow suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He’d lost all of his motor skills from the neck down, but he was still very articulate, intelligent and conversational. He was there quite some time as the disease took its course.

“This fellow had a stuffed Mickey Mouse in his room. Bailey’s one fault, if you can call it that, is his infatuation with stuffed animals. If you have a stuffed animal in a room, he will immediately go right to it.

“I commented that it was a good thing Mickey Mouse was up on a shelf or Bailey might want to run off with it. As we were leaving one day, out in the lobby, his 9-year-old daughter came out with Mickey Mouse and said, ‘My daddy wanted you to have this.’

“Mickey Mouse travels with us everywhere we go. I keep him in the car; he’s always riding with us.”

The team also participated in the 2011 memorial service for the Rev. Dr. William Kirkland, the former rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Charleston, and St. Timothy’s In-The-Valley Episcopal Church, Hurricane, as well as an animal lover who got Wilmoth involved in volunteering at the shelter.

For the procession into the church, they followed immediately behind the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia.

“What an honor that was,” Wilmoth said.

Now, Wilmoth has two other golden retrievers who are certified therapy dogs — Chloe and Dash (both adopted), who trade duties with Bailey since he’s getting older. He has a third dog, an adopted mutt named Trooper, who he said may join their ranks.

“We try to make somebody’s day a little better,” he said. “Pet therapy is not rocket science; it is, however, scientifically proven to be beneficial to most people.”

If you think your adopted pet has a unique story, send your contact information and some details about your pet’s story to Amy Robinson for consideration for a future feature.

Reach Amy Robinson at flipside@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4881.


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