PORT ORCHARD — Hello, Sailor.
Sailor is a dog who joins her human, Donna Gaskill, every day for work at the Washington Veterans Home in Retsil. Gaskill is a contracted physical therapist at the Port Orchard facility, and Sailor tags along to help out with the task.
“She’s made a huge impact on everyone here. She’s loved by everybody,” Gaskill said of Sailor.
“People come into the gym just to see her. There’s one resident we have who comes down for his restorative program, then spends two hours just holding Sailor.
Sailor isn’t the first dog Gaskill has brought with her to the veteran’s home, though. It started with her dog Bitsy.
“Whenever I got a dog, they always fell in love with my partner instead of me,” Gaskill explained.
“So I wouldn’t go to work unless she came with me. Then (Bitsy) just became … she just went with me wherever I went.”
Bitsy, Gaskill said, was a very small miniature schnauzer who “was very shy,” at least at first. But she meant a lot to the residents.
“I would put her on the patient’s lap, and all of a sudden, they would ‘wake up’ and start interacting with the dog,” Gaskill said.
“It made it very easy to start encouraging them to come down to do therapy because they would want to see the dog, and they would play with the dog. And it would help with (their) different ranges of motion. They would pet or brush the dog. It really helped them connect.”
When Bitsy suddenly passed away in February, Gaskill said the veterans home residents “were devastated. They begged me to get another dog.”
So Gaskill contacted a miniature schnauzer breeder — Gaskill said the particular breed she owns doesn’t shed — and asked to be alerted next time they needed to rehome a dog.
“I told them my dog’s story,” Gaskill said, “and what she meant to the residents at Retsil.
“(The breeder) said she didn’t have a dog she needed to rehome, but she had a stud she was going to retire. She donated Oliver to the veterans.”
Gaskill said both the breeder and her husband are also veterans.
Oliver’s life up to that point hadn’t involved much socialization outside of the one family he lived with, so he was a little too shy and reserved for what Gaskill needed. So she contacted the breeder once more and purchased a puppy.
“The veterans had a contest to name her,” Gaskill said. “They would put in names. I chose three that I could live with, then they voted on it. So they named her Sailor.
“Sailor comes to work with me every single day.”
Aside from the wonderful perk of having a puppy to play with — two when Gaskill brings Oliver, though he doesn’t join them every single day — there are other benefits to having a dog brought in.
“So many of our veterans suffer from issues related to PTSD,” said Tami Reuter, recreation manager at the veteran’s home, “or for whatever reason, our veterans tend to like to self-isolate. Folks who won’t come out of their room will come out to see a pet. It really is an increase in socialization.”
Reuter said there used to be “facility pets” living at the home in which residents would care for. That’s no longer the case because caring for the pets required a lot of energy and could be stressful.
“Having visiting pets is a great way to provide that experience without all the stress,” Reuter said.
“The residents … can’t own their pets and have them here, but family members can register pets,” Reuter explained.
“So they can bring (in) their pets. We have 60-70 pets that are registered to visit residents as family or therapy visitors.”
Not all are canines. Those pets include a hedgehog, ferrets and a pony.
“It’s their home,” Reuter said. “Many of our residents have always had pets in their home. It’s just part of extending and creating a home-like environment.”
Sailor brings joy to the staff as well as the residents.
“She’s been not only helpful to the residents, but to the staff. If the staff gets overwhelmed and are just having a really hard day, they will come in and ask if they can take Sailor outside.
“Just spending a few minutes with Sailor helps them relieve stress.”
Bringing Sailor and Oliver to work with her, Gaskill said, is a blessing.
“I feel very, very blessed that I can work in a place where they allow me to bring my animals to work (so they) can help others feel more like they’re in a home environment,” Gaskill said.
“A lot of these people never leave. They’re here 24/7/365. Having animals here is truly a blessing for them.”
Michelle Beahm is online editor for Kitsap News Group.