A princess, a watchdog, a lover, a baby and a gentle giant
By Sarah Whitman
Senior Staff Writer
A smile stretches across Garret Van Zanen’s face the moment he sees Bubbles, a friendly chihuahua, stretched out across the front desk at West Winds Assisted Living Facility in Zephyrhills.
“She’s beautiful,” Van Zanen said. “Just like the people who work here.”
Bubbles belongs to Kelly Irish, West Wind’s business director, and Kasey O’ Keefe, executive director at the senior home. The couple has five dogs, all of which are used as therapy dogs.
“The animals bring comfort to the residents and brighten their day,” Irish said. “They all help the residents in different ways.”
Bubbles is the princess. She loves attention, doting and being pampered. She has more than 40 doggie outfits to show off to residents and visitors. Most have a touch of pink and frills.
She makes the residents laugh.
“Bubbles is the official greeter,” Irish said. “She sits up front and welcomes everyone who comes in, so we dress her up. She loves it.”
Bubbles was actually the third dog to melt hearts at West Winds.
Carrie, a rat terrier, was the first. She moved in two years ago, after O’ Keefe rescued her as a pup. She’s been the resident watchdog ever since. Her bark sounds whenever she senses danger.
“If there’s a stranger in the building, Carrie lets everyone know,” Irish said. “The residents know if they hear her it means something is different.”
The second dog to arrive at West Winds is a little more relaxed. Tinkerbell, a 15-year-old fox terrier, is a lap dog and loves to snuggle. She will spend hours hanging out in residents’ rooms.
“If a resident is sick, we’ll bring Tinkerbell to their room and she’ll just curl up in bed next to them and go right to sleep,” Irish said. “She brings them peace.”
Resident Jean Lawrence loves Tinkerbell but is most fascinated with the fourth dog to call West Winds home, a more than 100-pound great dane named Shadow. He is a gentle giant with a big heart and a slightly shy disposition.
“Shadow is just gorgeous,” Lawrence said. “All I have to do is look at him and he makes me smile.”
Shadow was rescued from the Citrus County pound after being found abandoned on the side of the road.
“He had been traumatized by abuse and was afraid of people,” Irish said. “The pound was excited about him coming here because they thought the residents would help him as much as he would help them.”
West Wind resident Thomasine admires Shadow from a distance but loves to play with the little dogs. When she first moved to West Winds, she spent most days alone in her room. Then, she met Bubbles and started venturing down the hall to spend time with the dogs.
“I never had a dog before,” she said, grinning from ear to ear. “I love all of them.”
Irish said the dogs help many residents interact better socially.
“Some residents had dogs in the past and the dogs remind them of those experiences, so they start talking about it,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing for them to open up and talk about the things that have brought them joy.”
The newest canine at West Winds fits in the palm of most residents’ hands. Gizmo, known as the baby of the bunch, is half chihuahua and half pomeranian.
“Everybody wants to hold the fur ball,” Irish said. “Gizmo is smart and full of energy.”
Gizmo will be the first West Winds dog to attend training and become an official therapy dog. To enroll in training, dogs must be 6 months to a year. So, he still has a couple months to wait.
Still, Irish doesn’t think of her dogs as being less qualified than certified therapy animals.
“You can just look and see you don’t need a certificate to be a dog that makes someone’s day better,” she said.
For information on West Winds, 37411 Eiland Blvd., call (813) 783-8100.