Teens learn empathy, spread joy with pet therapy (w/video)

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

Jan. 16, 2014 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 17, 2014 at 7:18 p.m.

Five 12-year-old boys walked side by side down the hallway of Victoria Nursing and Rehabilitation Center with a terrier mix named Duke.

With baseball caps pushed back, they shuffled their sneakers across the tile floor as if tromping down railroad tracks in a scene from a familiar coming-of-age film.

The long, circular corridor, which serves as the final road for many of the home's residents, is the continuation of a compassionate path for the boys.

Zeke Holder, Blake Houck, Christian Podschelne, Tavion Varela and Ryan Rossett arrived Jan. 8 with armfuls of gifts. Duke tugged at his leash as they distributed handmade ornaments, ice cream and youthful greetings to their elderly friends.

"Social interaction with dogs calms people and leads to better psychological health," said Sally Kuecker, executive director of the Dorothy O'Connor Pet Adoption Center. "It also lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels."

The visits socialize the dog and bring joy to lives, Kuecker added.

Zeke and his mother, Shauna Holder, made more than 75 ornaments for the residents.

They cut crosses from the dough with a cookie cutter, baked the forms, hand-painted them with colorful acrylic paints and tied twine hangers from holes punched in the tops.

"It's about passing something along that will be returned later," Holder said. "It teaches Zeke empathy - that it could be his family member or him one day."

The experience shows Zeke how fortunate he is to have friends and family and that some, who might not be around much longer, do not have others, she said.

"Teens can be self-absorbed, and this gives them a sense of what it's like to care for others," said Leigh Podschelne, Christian's mother. "They all want to come because they enjoy it."

With their mothers, the boys served chocolate and vanilla ice cream with Chex Mix, chocolate and strawberry toppings in the main dining room. They also visited residents in their rooms with Duke.

"Pets are good therapy because some of the residents don't have much stimulation," said Angela Martinez Robinson, activity director for Victoria Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. "It brings back memories of pets they have had."

Mamie Rubio sat in her room with a copy of The Victoria Advocate spread out on her bed. Framed family photos, small, decorative knickknacks and an image of the Sacred Heart of Mary filled a side table.

At one time, Rubio had a Peek-a-poo, a cross between a Pekingese and a poodle, named Mandy.

"This is wonderful - the most beautiful thing they could do," Rubio said. "It's wonderful to know they care."

Zeke decided that he wanted to train a dog to visit nursing centers and other places after he watched a television show about pet therapy.

He entertained the idea of training a shelter dog until he learned that his mother's friend wanted to enroll her dog, Duke, in obedience classes.

Two-year-old Duke belongs to Elvia Smith, a friend and co-worker of Holder. Zeke jumped at the opportunity to train him.

Their journey began in June at the Dorothy O'Connor Pet Adoption Center's Camp K9. The education continued in September with the Victoria Dog Obedience Club's seven-week course.

"Zeke and Duke have a connection - a friendship," Holder said. "Training Duke taught him patience and compassion."

The show dogs that were calm and relaxed during training seemed oblivious, while hyper Duke constantly watched Zeke for direction, she said.

"Duke barely passed," Zeke said. "I mean, he'll do anything if you wave string cheese in front of his face."

Zeke visited his first nursing center in Goliad with the Cub Scouts when he was 5.

He and his friends visited the same nursing center as well as Warm Springs Post Acute Hospital in Victoria in late December.

With Duke, they distributed stuffed animals and candy canes to the residents.

All but Christian, who attends school in Goliad, are students at Nazareth Academy.

"Seeing the smiles on their faces makes me happy," Zeke said. "We get to be the people who help them."



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