Not Your Average Pup: Meet Toby
Every morning, Toby slips on his miniature vest and name badge, eager to start the day. “Are you ready to go to work?” his owner, Rita Rivera, asks. Toby wags his tail and runs toward the door, as if he knows exactly what she’s saying. Once he arrives at the office, Toby is greeted with belly rubs and warm hugs. He lights up the room with each step, as bystanders admire his furry tan coat. The amount of joy he brings others every morning is unmatchable; but for Toby, it’s just another day in the office.
Toby is a 7-year-old corgi-terrier mix who, as of three weeks ago, was named Heisinger Bluffs’ newest employee. Toby works as an emotional support dog at the Lutheran Senior Services’ (LSS) Life Plan Community located in Jefferson City, MO. Emotional support animals like Toby are meant to bring comfort, positivity and relaxation to individuals experiencing emotional, physical or psychological disabilities.
For Toby, his work entails a lot of responsibilities including bringing happiness, laughter and often a sense of excitement to the residents of Heisinger Bluffs. He lets them brush his hair and likes to play fetch outside. When Toby senses a resident is unable to reach down and pet him, he’ll often lift himself up to their lap to let them touch his soft, furry head. Although an expert at his craft, working as an emotional support pup is relatively new to Toby.
Rivera had always wanted to introduce pet therapy at Heisinger Bluffs, so she decided to browse a Jefferson City pet shelter’s website for a potential candidate. After seeing Toby’s picture, Rivera went down to the shelter to meet him and see if he would be a good fit. She was looking for a dog who was gentle, loving and didn’t mind being roughhoused or pet in the face. She said Toby fit the bill perfectly.
“Toby was exactly what I was looking for,” Rivera said. “I saw him, and I knew he would be just perfect. I knew he would fit right in with our community.”
Toby’s previous owner passed away on a Monday, and Rivera adopted him that Wednesday. She spoke to the Heisinger Bluffs’ leadership team including administrator, Ashley Drewel, beforehand to make sure Toby’s presence would be supported and welcomed at the community. Rest assured, everyone agreed Toby’s company would highly benefit the residents and staff. After a few weeks of getting familiar with each other, Rivera believed Toby was ready for his first day on the job. After his first visit to Heisinger Bluffs, Rivera knew there was something special about Toby.
“I brought Toby in and everyone just fell in love with him immediately,” Rivera said. “The passion and love in the residents’ faces when they looked in his eyes was just unbelievable. Not all dogs can do this, but Toby is not all dogs.”
There are a wide variety of benefits from having an emotional support animal present, especially at senior living community. When Toby comes around, the residents are more apt to socialize. They start talking about the pets they used to have and share stories about fond memories of their own dogs. Some residents suffer from Alzheimer’s or memory loss, however, seeing Toby has a way of jogging their memories.
“When a resident can’t always remember where his or her room is but can remember Toby’s name for more than five minutes, that’s pretty magical,” Rivera said. “Toby decreases their loneliness, having something to give affection and love to, while giving common ground among the residents.”
In additional to emotional and social support, Toby likes to get some of the residents up and moving. He loves to play fetch and often brings his ball in hopes residents will toss it for him. Having an emotional support dog gives the residents a small sort of purpose. They’ll go to the kitchen and grab him treats or make sure he has access to a bowl of water. Even just brushing Toby’s hair helps residents work on their hand-eye coordination. For the residents who are unable or less willing to leave their rooms, Toby and Rivera will pay them a personal visit. Rivera recalls one of many instances where Toby made a real difference in a resident’s everyday life.
“There was a resident who rarely came out of her room. When she did it was to eat, and then she’d go right back,” Rivera said. “Now, she comes out of her room four or five times a day to see Toby. He gives her a reason to come out and visit. She comes and sees him every day, multiple times a day, and gives him a treat.”
Needless to say, Toby has made his mark on both the residents and staff of LSS and Heisinger Bluffs. He continues to bring laughter, conversation and comfort to the community, while still receiving a few belly rubs along the way. The benefit and impact of Toby’s presence goes far beyond what one would have thought possible; and his work has only just begun.
“The love between the residents and Toby is so real; they have a true connection and just a feeling of pure happiness when they’re with him,” Rivera said. “I’ve seen many teary eyes when Toby visits. It’s overwhelmingly wonderful. And so is he.”
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