Therapy dog spreads joy at hospitals, schools
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Colonel can bark in five languages - but that's not the best part.

The 8-year-old golden retriever possesses a certain magic that helps people heal.

"It's not just the 'ah' factor - 'oh, that's such a cute dog,' " explained Kathy Klotz, executive director of Holladay-based Intermountain Animal Therapy.

Animals are like a catalyst for healing, whether for a burn patient, a recovering drug addict or a stroke victim.

"Patients get discouraged," Klotz said. "And one of the things the animals do best is help them decide life is worth living."

Colonel and Susan Daynes make up one of 300 volunteer teams Intermountain Animal Therapy deploys daily to area hospitals, therapy centers, schools, even detention centers.

The two have been doing it for six years and get rave reviews wherever they go. On a recent swing through the rehab center at University Hospital, moods and faces lightened as Colonel visited patients recovering from such things as spinal cord injuries, cancer treatments and other serious ailments.

Robert Fern, 72, of West Valley City, brightened as Colonel approached. Fern is recovering from a stroke and played "tug of war" with the dog with his weakened left arm. Later the pair played "fetch" with Fern throwing a rubber ball left-handed down the long hospital corridor. Negotiating the waxy floors like an ice skater, Colonel soon had the ball back for another toss.

"That was fun," Fern said. "He likes me."

Recreational therapist Shauna Smith said dogs break down barriers in therapy. People forget their pain and can make speech and other physical breakthroughs almost without effort.

"They make it fun and magical and people don't even realize they're doing therapy. They are an amazing, positive tool."

Colonel's handler has firsthand experience with the healing power animals bring. About 18 years ago, her then-16-year-old son, Tim Daynes, suffered a serious spinal cord injury. It left him paralyzed and despondent.

That's when Susan Daynes learned of Canine Companions for Independence - trained therapy dogs that live with patients.

"It changed his life," she recalled.

When Tim gained independence and went out on his own - with his dog, of course - Susan decided to train puppies for the Canine Companions program. And that's how she met Colonel. Although she continues to train puppies that eventually leave her to serve as companions, she kept Colonel.

"I wanted to do something to give back, to contribute," she said of visiting rehab centers several times a week. "And this is very rewarding."

And Colonel is a real trooper. He is well-behaved and affectionate. He shakes hands with patients, cuddles with them and only speaks when Daynes asks. He responds to the command "speak" whether uttered in English, Spanish, French, German or Italian.

University Hospital patient Justina Kirby perked up when Colonel sat beside her and offered to shake hands.

"You're a good boy," she said. "He's so beautiful."

Kirby said she yearned to get home to her own pets.

"This is so helpful, and it's moving for me because I don't have my cats here."

It's no act. Colonel really enjoys people, Daynes explained. Dogs don't care if you're in a wheelchair or on a ventilator, they'll love you just the same.

csmart@sltrib.com