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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hearts and Paws: Skilled nursing center patients foster older dogs until adoption

Cyrus, a black Lab-heeler mix, sat contentedly near a wheelchair at Prestige’s Sullivan Park Care Center. The dog had returned from a walk with another resident at the facility, so he awaited further attention.

He got plenty – including pats and a few treats – as several residents cared for him at the Spokane Valley skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility.

Cyrus arrived Jan. 3, staying until adopted within two days. The residents were eager to help him find a new home through their monthslong partnership with SpokAnimal CARE, called the Hearts and Paws program. They foster one senior dog at a time for several days, or a few weeks, until adoption.

Between March 2022 and early January, the residents had saved 13 senior dogs, including 7-year-old Cyrus. Once a dog is adopted, the animal shelter brings another one.

“This program is important because I feel the dog can still bring a lifetime of joy to someone,” said Patty Mitchell, a Sullivan Park resident and the program’s adoption coordinator.

“They are very comforting and loving animals. Some of the dogs do need a little help, but it doesn’t seem to stop the people who want to adopt them.”

Sullivan Park has created a wall display above an indoor space created for the fostered dog. The row has photos of most canines once in care: Rosie, Talia, Kaviar, Gretchen, Rocky, Cuddle Bug, Brock, Missy, Cooper and Gidget.

Gretchen had only three legs after a traffic accident.

“She did beautifully here, and the people who adopted her sent us videos to show us how she’s running in the yard,” Mitchell said. “A lot of the owners have written letters to us saying how well their dog is doing.”

SpokAnimal selects the dog brought to Sullivan Park based on temperament, size and age of 7 years or older – considered a “senior dog,” said Dori Peck, the nonprofit’s executive director. She said the older canines, many with arthritis, thrive in the program and find homes.

“I wouldn’t say they’re harder to place, but the shelter is harder on senior dogs; there are concrete floors and kennels,” Peck said. “The program at Sullivan Park is a much more health-friendly and emotionally friendly living environment for the senior dogs, until they’re adopted.

“The residents also will take on the dogs that need meds, like if they need arthritis medication. They take immaculate care of those dogs, and they handle even the adoption, everything from start to finish. It’s been an amazing partnership, and we are just in love with that program. Our goal is to do 24 dogs this year.”

Peck said SpokAnimal selects fostered dogs large enough for the residents in wheelchairs to handle without bending too far. The canines see a veterinarian beforehand. Their temperament screen includes that they don’t pull hard on a leash, tolerate other pets that might visit and aren’t aggressive. Candidates are found among rescue groups, animal shelters and owner surrenders.

SpokAnimal provides the dog’s food, veterinary care and any medications while fostered. Sullivan Park residents take photos and send descriptions about each dog, which the nonprofit uses to help promote adoptions.

About 10 residents are involved in running Sullivan Park’s program and regularly provide care, said Matt Lysobey, the facility’s administrator. Community awareness is growing, he said, and Mitchell has a waiting list of people asking about adopting fostered dogs.

The facility’s residents have cognitive or physical impairments, such as Parkinson’s disease, or are recovering from strokes, Lysobey added. Others may have had limbs amputated and many use wheelchairs. The program’s participants want to serve, he said.

“In nursing homes in general, even if people are receiving wonderful, compassionate care, people at their core still need to be needed; they need to have a reason to get out of bed,” Lysobey said. “This program, Hearts and Paws, and partnering with SpokAnimal, it’s not a pet visitation program; it’s a service project, and it’s completely resident-run.

“This is residents being of service and still of value to their community in saving senior dogs.”

Residents sign up to take care of daily chores such as the dog’s potty breaks, walks, grooming and any medications. The dog’s indoor space in a common area is fenced with a bed, toys and sleeping kennel. On warm days, the dog has a canopy-covered outdoor area of a central courtyard.

Mitchell handles calls for potential adoption and meets people at the facility to see a dog. She does the adoption paperwork and takes the $85 fee that goes to SpokAnimal. The owner takes a dog home directly from Sullivan Park.

Ed Minzes, another Sullivan Park resident, oversees the dog’s exercise and training. He said it’s often just reinforcing basics such as walking on a leash and sitting.

“These dogs need a home,” said Minzes, who once lived on a farm with dogs. “It’s good for the residents. It gives us something to do.”

All the residents involved help choose a good match for a dog among prospective owners. They also warn them that the dogs might have gotten a little spoiled, Mitchell said.

“They’ve gotten lots of attention from the residents, the nursing staff, the people who come in to visit,” Mitchell said. “Plus, they have a schedule. If they’re not here, they’re outside.

“It’s very rewarding because you get attached to them and help them, and so far we haven’t had any dogs returned to the shelter. We’ve heard all positive feedback.”

The residents get a little sad when a dog leaves, but then they fall in love with the next one, she said. “We’d really like to see the program expand to other places. It’s not that hard to do if you set your mind to it and get a few people to help you.”

Mitchell said organizers at other senior care facilities in Spokane – and nationwide – can call her for information on starting a program at an adoption hotline, (509) 789-7856.

Peck also hopes for more fostering among facilities interested, with questions at (509) 534-8133, ext. 100.

“We’d love to have other adult facilities do this,” Peck said. “The residents are beaming with joy when we take a new dog out.”

New owners Marilyn Lloyd, 86, and Doug Lloyd, 89, are glad the program exists, as well. They live in Spokane and recently adopted Haley, a husky-chow, fostered at Sullivan Park near the holidays.

Haley has eye problems requiring drops, and hip dysplasia, which means twice daily tablets. All that didn’t matter.

“She is the most gentle dog,” Marilyn Lloyd said. “Both my husband and I are convinced that we need to help her.”

The couple’s 16-year-old dog died a while ago, and she wanted another one, but not a puppy. Haley came housed-trained and well-behaved. “We were warned you don’t want to meet her if you have any reservations, because you couldn’t turn her down, and that was true.”

A veterinarian told the couple that said Haley might be 8 to 13, and that she’s lucky to have her new owners. But Lloyd turns that around.

“We’re lucky to have her,” she said. “I was just impressed with the program. These are dogs that are hard to find people to adopt them, and they take such great care of them.”