Pet Partners grow, serve more

Kate Baehr and her dog Wista. - Annie Miksch photo
Kate Baehr and her dog Wista.
— image credit: Annie Miksch photo

Keeping with the spirit of dogs being a human’s best friend, several dogs and their owners were recently certified as Pet Partners and are ready to go to schools and care facilities on the Island, spreading canine kindness.

The owners and dogs have been training through the Bellevue-based Delta Society, whose mission is to improve human health through service and therapy animals. In home training and through regular group gatherings, the dogs have learned far more than the basic commands and will stay calm around school children excited to pet them, for example, and know how to approach someone in a wheelchair and walk serenely through a crowd.

Currently, there are about 20 Pet Partner teams on the Island, with several of them serving in the Paws to Read program at Chautauqua Elementary School. Through the program, the dogs, accompanied by their owner or handler, listen to children read at Chautauqua each week. The program has gotten raves all around, from students, to teachers, to principal Kate Baehr, who, with her husband Steve Nixon and their German Shepherd Wista, were in the group certified in September.

Though Baehr has plenty to keep her busy already, she hopes she and Wista will listen to children read each week.

“As a principal, I think it’s really important kids see me as a caring helper in a lot of different roles so that if I ever have to step into my disciplinary role, they know

I care about them,” she said.

Liz Straube, who with Joan Baseleon is one of the organizers of the Vashon program, hopes to have six teams at the school each week, listening to 18 kids read. There are more teams in the pipeline, she added, teams Baehr will welcome.

The dogs give the children something human beings cannot, according to Straube.

“They have the ability to read in an environment that’s non-judgmental. And that's invaluable,” she said.

For Islander Judy Dohm and her 7-year-old cocker spaniel Skyler, the Vashon Community Care Center seems to be the place to serve. They will be joined by Catalina Colwell with Pica, a retired guide dog, and hope to work as a team, Dohm said.

Skyler, she said, is “a social little guy” and earlier in his life was a show dog in Canada.

Dohm has been in the nursing home with other animals in the past and knows that residents respond to them readily.

“They’ll talk to a dog when they might not talk to a person,” she said.

The residents can pet the dogs, walk with them and simply enjoy their presence.

Dohm said she hopes to provide “the comfort of a nice dog next to their side ... just give them a little bit of pleasure.”

Retired obedience competitor Emily, an 8-year-old Newfoundland, and her owner Annie Miksch plan to serve hospice patients on the Island through Providence Hospice.

Like many Newfound-lands, Emily has quite a presence, often overshadowing Miksch: “It’s a bit like Jack Kennedy accompanying Jackie to Paris,” she said.

Not surprisingly, considerably more training for them both is needed to serve with hospice, both through the Delta Society and through Providence itself. She hopes they will be volunteering by the first of the year.

“I’m hoping I’m going to provide a sense of comfort and of still participating in life,” she said.

Miksch added that at the end of her mother’s life, her mother no longer spoke, but when Miksch would visit with her dog, a connection between her mother and the dog was apparent.

“Hopefully, that will be the same kind of connection for someone else,” she said.

Volunteers may train to be Pet Partners. For more information, e-mail Liz Straube at or call Joan Baseleon at 463-4536.

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