A visit from a gentle giant

By From page A3 | April 13, 2012

There’s nothing like a visit from a big friendly St. Bernard to cheer people up.

Especially when you’re confined to a hospital bed and the dog visiting you is Dante.

A 170-pound, 3 1/2-year-old certified therapy dog, Dante sauntered down the hallway of the transitional care center of Marshall Hospital with his owner, Vearl LaBerge. The appearance of the happy-go-lucky dog drew strokes and smiles from staff and patients alike.

“It’s hard to be in a hospital. People get so excited when they see Dante,” said LaBerge. “They are depressed but when they see him, their faces light up.”

LaBerge said they usually do a quick round as she tries to judge how tired a patient is before they go in a room for a visit. When they were at the hospital on April 5, they visited 10 to 11 patients for a few minutes each.

Kathleen Jones, one of the patients in the center, reached out to pet Dante and cooed, “Aren’t you gorgeous. Don’t you know that?” She plans to get her own dog once released from the hospital.

Another patient received a big sloppy kiss from Dante in return for her stroking his head.

LaBerge said she brings her pet to the hospital for a visit every two weeks and has been doing so since July of last year.

“He gets excited when he knows it’s visiting day,” she said of Dante. “He knows exactly where he’s going once I start grooming him, which takes two hours every time.”

On this trip to the hospital, Vearl’s husband, Jim, was with her taking photographs. Jim said they picked Dante because he was so mellow, even as a puppy, and because he relates so well to people with medical conditions. “Once we were visiting a nursing home and there was a patient who hadn’t spoken in six months” he said. “When she wanted something, she would wave her hands. But as we were leaving, she suddenly said ‘bye-bye Dante.’ The staff were astounded.”

“He’s always been very aware of people’s needs,” stated Vearl. She recalled a previous visit to Marshall when a man and a lady came in from the patio. “I could see they were very upset about something. All of a sudden she put her arms around Dante and sobbed while Dante stood there patiently. When she was done she said, ‘Thank you. I needed that.’ How did the dog know to do that? The dog gave her what she needed.”

Vearl said the St. Bernard breed likes to interact with people and is instinctively protective. That’s one of the reasons they are used as therapy dogs. Often called gentle giants, they are very aware of their surroundings and love people. However even dogs have personality differences. The couple have another St. Bernard but Vearl said that dog would have no interest in doing this. “I can tell by the way she reacts to people,” she said.

Dante became certified as a therapy dog last year after completing a four-day training program in Sacramento through an organization called Therapy Dogs Inc. Vearl was trained as well on the proper protocol to follow when in a hospital, including how to dress. Therapy dogs are tested annually for parasites and general health by a vet and are retrained periodically to keep up their certification.

Following their visit to the hospital, Dante and Vearl headed for the Pollock Pines library in the afternoon where Dante listens while children read to him. Called the “literary dog of Pollock Pines,” Dante is part of an ongoing program to encourage reading in children.

“Kids react to dogs,” said Vearl. “When they feel someone is listening to them and offering them unconditional love, they find it easier to read. And they get undivided attention from Dante.”

Vearl and Jim, who live in Pollock Pines, fell in love with the breed over 20 years ago when a St. Bernard stuck its head in their car window. Their first St. Bernard turned out to be a rescue situation. The dog had been tied up most of its life and the owner was getting ready to put her down. But the dog won Jim’s heart and came to live with them instead.

Since then they’ve become actively involved in the breeding and showing of St. Bernards. They are members of the St. Bernard club of America and the Hangtown Kennel Club. Vearl is also President of the St. Bernard Club of San Jose.

Later this month they will participate in a St. Bernard show at the Red Lion Hotel Sacramento at Arden Village from April 26 to 29. Events include obedience, conformation, rally trial, weight pull, and carting exhibitions. People interested in learning more can call 530-647-1390.

An additional event at the show will be a presentation to the Sacramento Fire Department of two canine oxygen kits that can be used specifically to resuscitate cats or dogs.

Vearl said she became interested in the therapy dog program and in being a part of the library reading program as a way of giving back.

“This is such a beautiful area and the people are great. In 1998 I spent two months in ICU on life support, and I know how I would have loved to have a visit from my dog,” she said. “I just try to do what I can for the community.”

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo. 

Dawn Hodson

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