MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

November 2, 2012

Collie unleashes smiles at VAMC

Therapy dog brightens day for veterans, families

By Wendy Burton
Phoenix Staff Writer

— As Terry Keith of Tahlequah strolls through the halls of the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center, veterans and their families smile at him and give his companion a scratch.

His companion is a 5-year-old collie named Echo, who Keith trained as a therapy dog for veterans.

Echo enters each room, tail wagging, and puts her paws on the side of each bed so a veteran can rub her furry neck or feed her a little treat.

Keith said she brings joy to many.

“I’m a homebound vet, and I only get out once a week and it’s with my dog to go see those guys, because they’re important to me,” Keith said. “She is exclusively for the men and women who have gave of themselves to defend this country. I owe it to them and that’s why I do what I do.”

As Keith enters each veteran’s hospital room, he introduces himself and his dog, then shakes their hands and thanks them for their service.

Chief of Voluntary Service Greg Sorenson said it’s a special moment when Keith says goodbye to the veterans.

“To see one veteran thank another veteran for their service, well, it just chokes me up sometimes,” he said.

Sorenson said everyone looks forward to Keith and Echo’s visits in the rehab unit, and now, another unit.

Keith said Echo loves her “job.”

“On Friday, I’ll tell her we’re going to therapy, and I take her vest and hold it down and she puts her head right through like she’s anxious to go,” he said. “She hops in the truck, and we go on down. I honestly think she enjoys it.”

Keith made his usual rounds Friday, starting with a room for a veteran on hospice, surrounded by his family.

“That’s a two-fold thing for me. I lost my father in February, and he was a Korean veteran and he was on hospice,” Keith said. “I went down there and experienced that, and now I come back here, and I leave the rooms tearful sometimes.”

Keith said the veterans’ families appreciate Echo’s visits, too.

“There was a guy on hospice and his family wanted me to come in. He was immobile, so I got his hand down there and took Echo and rubbed his hand with her face,” Keith said. “And he felt her. And they said since he entered hospice three days before he was the most alert he had ever been. It meant so much to them in his last days to see him alert like that with the dog.”

Keith moved on down the hall to the room of Chuck Wendland, who’s been in the hospital for several weeks.

Wendland said he has three dogs at home and he misses them, so when Keith came in — not the first time Wendland met Echo — Wendland’s face lit up with a smile.

Echo placed her feet on the bed and let Wendland rub her nose and give her a treat. Then, she got comfortable on the chair next to his bed.

Later, Echo did tricks for therapy patients down the hall.

“Everybody gets a kick out of her signature trick — the whisper,” Keith said. “I put my finger up to my lips, that’s my whisper sign, and she looks like she’s barking, but it’s almost silent.”

She performed for her adoring fans, then Keith told her to “speak up.”

“Let everybody know you’re here Echo,” Keith said.

And she barked loud, drawing the attention of everyone around and lots of smiles, too.

Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or wburton

@muskogeephoenix.com.