K-9 therapists help bring smiles to seniors in South Florida

Connie Shank, a resident of John Knox Village in Fort Lauderdale, attended the St. Patrick’s Day K-9 car parade with her husband Jerry Shank, a retired veterinarian who practiced for 45 years. 

Before the parade, she could not recall the last time her husband was able to leave the Woodlands nursing facility at John Knox Village in Pompano Beach. 

Connie Shank said all planned activities at the assisted care facility in which she and her husband live had been stopped completely due to COVID-19. 

The fitness center and the auditorium were closed, and the dining room was only open by reservation. She said staff did their best to help residents pass the time, but for those that did not have access to Zoom, it was a lonely life. 

Her husband Jerry ran Shank Animal Hospital in Fort Lauderdale from 1975 to 2017. 

He can no longer speak and has lost the ability to move his arms as a result of having Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But his daughter, Stephanie Correa, who is also a veterinarian and owns Animal Cancer Care Clinic in Fort Lauderdale, held his arm at the parade so that he could pet the dogs. 

His wife Connie said that although he was unable to share his thoughts, it was no secret how the parade made him feel. 

“He just had smiles all over his face that day,” she said.

Canine-Assisted Therapy in Fort Lauderdale, the organization that held the K-9 caravan, has come up with fun new alternatives like these to replace their usual services and to continue making a difference for people that need it most in the South Florida community. 

CAT is a nonprofit organization that brings volunteers and their pets to provide animal therapy and companionship to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices, schools and anywhere else their services are needed.

If there is one thing many Americans share after learning to adapt to life in a global pandemic, it is a heightened awareness of the importance of mental health. 

Therapy animals and even house pets have helped people cope with feelings of anxiety and depression as many continue to struggle with the psychological effects of the pandemic.  

However, children and adults living in assisted-care facilities and hospitals have experienced increased feelings of isolation because of harsher restrictions and a greater lack of social interaction. Before the pandemic, in-person interactions with therapy dogs gave people in assisted living facilities and children in hospitals something to look forward to.

“We didn’t want to lose those relationships they had established with the clients and residents to be washed down the drain. They are used to these visits and we still wanted them to have that outlet and interaction, to know they were not forgotten and that we are thinking about them,” said CAT program director Elise Samet. 

Visits from therapy animals have been proven to reduce stress and lower blood pressure and heart rates. They have also been shown to improve self-esteem, group interactions and anxiety.

Lockdowns and limitations put into place to prevent those that are medically vulnerable from contracting the illness have made in-person interactions with therapy animals and other people nearly impossible. 

As a direct result of the pandemic, Samet said the organization began to offer virtual zoom calls with therapy dogs and even trademarked the term “TeleDog.” 

The organization also teamed up with assisted-living facilities like John Knox to host holiday car parades where volunteers of the organization decorate their cars and drive the animals slowly around the facility so that residents may interact with them.

So far, the organization has held four parades at John Knox since the summer of 2020, starting with the Fourth of July, then Halloween, Christmas and the most recent, a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Life Enrichment coordinator Jacquee Thompson who plans activities and social events at John Knox said residents love the parades.

“They bring their lawn chairs and sit outside on the road in front of each residential building to watch the parade and pet the dogs,” said Thompson. 

Thompson says holding these events is important because residents were not receiving much human contact besides their caregivers and in the early stages of the pandemic, they were allowed no visitors at all. 

Even now, residents are only able to have visits from family members once a week.

The experience has also been rewarding for CAT volunteers such as Vanessa Carosella from Boca Raton who has been working for the organization for a year and a half. 

She has participated in the parades with Ivy, her 6-year-old rescue golden retriever from Puerto Rico.

Vanessa said Ivy has a trunk full of costumes that she has worn to the parades, ranging from a sunflower costume to a hammerhead shark. She said she enjoys seeing the faces of the residents light up when they see the creatively decorated vehicles showcasing Ivy and the other dogs.

“I’ve volunteered a lot in my life, and this is one of the best things I’ve been able to do,” said Carosella. 


Kayla Ayala is a junior at FIU majoring in Broadcast Journalism. She is keen on discussing women's issues and animal rights. Kayla was a member of her high school’s television production program Cypress Bay Television or “CBTV.” Her ambitions for her career as a journalist is to report for VICE News, as well as work independently to uncover and report on social injustices locally and globally.