ST. MARYS — Elk Haven Nursing Home residents gathered by the Christmas tree in the dining room on Thursday morning, visiting with two of Santa’s four-legged helpers.

Handler Davina Geitner has three therapy dogs — Maddie, Lexie and Gracie, all seniors, and all certified through Therapy Dogs International (TDI).

Only Maddie and Lexie took part Thursday. Both are American Kennel Club (AKC) golden retrievers, and they stole the show, gathering by the tree for a photo with each resident — one dressed in a Santa costume, and the other as a Christmas tree with a star hat on top. Some residents remained to sing Christmas carols and watch as others got their picture taken.

The three dogs received local obedience training by Doreen Nelson at the Elk County Humane Society. This training helps them adjust to being around equipment such as wheelchairs, and distractions like loud noises, Geitner says. The dogs also attended Canine Camp Getaway, a training camp for both the handlers and dogs together.

Gracie, a 9-year-old Labrador mix, has a special story, Geitner says. She was adopted from ECHS, and went from being a rescue to a therapy dog who brings smiles to many faces.

Maddie, 7, was going to do agility competitions as a puppy, until she was injured in a fall, Geitner said. Because of her “laid back, low-key” personality, she ended up being the perfect fit for a therapy dog.

Lexie, who is 10 years old, was a social butterfly Thursday, straying off to nuzzle up to nearby residents whenever she got the chance.

Once or twice a week, Geitner and her furry companions visit patients and residents in Elk County facilities, including Penn Highlands Elk, Pinecrest Manor, Silver Creek Terrace, Adult Day Services and others.

Some seniors will come in, seeming sad, and just “light up” when they see the dogs, Geitner said.

“It’s a very rewarding experience to see dogs bring such joy to the residents,” she said.

The dogs visit venues in pairs, Geitner said, taking turns. They either go into patient rooms or gather in a group setting. During the holidays, they wear special costumes to make the mood more festive.

The presence of an animal, whether it’s stroking their fur or being able to interact with a companion, is very beneficial to seniors, and tends to lighten their mood.

Kristen Huff, an EHNH activities aide, took a photo of each of the many residents who stopped in to visit with the dogs. She gets each photo printed, she said, so that residents can hang them in their rooms as memories.

For more information, visit the EHNH Facebook page, or call 814-834-2618.

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