‘Here comes Riley’: Therapy dog brings comfort and smiles to Life Care Center of Kona

  • Riley the therapy dog walks down the Life Care Center of Kona hallway with her owner Chris Morrison on Wednesday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Riley the therapy dog visits residents at Life Care of Kona every Wednesday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Life Care Center of Kona resident Jeffrey Gomes pets Riley the therapy dog on last week. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Suzzanne Nemick pets Riley the therapy dog at Life Care Center of Kona. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KEAUHOU — Patients at Life Care Center of Kona know that Wednesdays are for Riley.

Riley, a 3-year-old golden retriever, is spreading joy and smiles with every tail wag as a certified therapy dog.

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“It’s a big plus. I love it when the dogs come. … It makes you feel warm and loving and it’s very good,” said Suzzanne Nemick, a patient at the skilled nursing facility.

Riley’s owners, Chris and Jo Morrison saw the need for therapy dogs in the facility through Jo’s job as an occupational therapist. They were inspired to begin Riley’s certification journey when she was just 10 months old.

Riley trained with Focused K9s Hawaii and took basic obedience and agility classes, as well as specialized therapy dog courses like Canine Good Citizen, medical equipment desensitization, relationship building and behavior modification. She also achieved 300 documented training hours outside of the classes.

After receiving her certification in May 2017, Riley now trots through the Life Care Center of Kona, looking into every room to see who might need some golden comforting.

“When I’m going down the corridors of the hallways and sometimes the patients are sitting in the halls … they see us coming and I can hear them saying, ‘Here comes Riley,’” said Chris.

With new residents, Riley is able to help with their transition.

“There’s a lot of patients that are either coming from the hospital or from home and all of sudden they’re in a new building with all these new sights and sounds, and here comes Riley down the hall, said Trish Viegner, Life Care Center of Kona activities director. “Their eyes kind of focus on her and they start to smile when she walks up to the chair and she’ll sit and nudge their hand, and before you know it they’re smiling and petting her and it’s a really nice feeling.

“I think that’s what therapy dogs do,” she added. “They create a little bridge.”

Jo has also seen Riley’s positive effect on the patient’s behavior. For example, she said, some people at the facility going through stroke rehabilitation and who may be partially limited on one side of their arm will reach out and pet Riley.

“It’s very therapeutic in a lot of different ways,” said Jo.

Not only does Riley’s affectionate personality help comfort the patients, but the Life Care Center staff, as well.

“It’s exciting and it brightens up your day. My day, and the residents’ day,” said Susan Bergdahl, a registered nurse.

Riley isn’t the first therapy dog to grace the halls of the Life Care Center of Kona.

Some may remember Mordy, a red golden retriever who served as a therapy and service dog. When he died in 2015, Kona Lucky — the great-granddog to Mordy — stepped in and is also currently visiting patients at the Life Care Center. Mordy is also known as “the hospital dog” at Kona Community Hospital.

With two active therapy dogs cheerfully comforting those in the community, having these furry friends present in medical facilities is something many people hope to see more of.

“Every dog is different … So the more dogs we get the better because they all connect to each resident differently,” said Viegner.

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Riley is in the process of getting her Emotional Service Animal — ESA — certification but continues to love going to work, visiting patients every week.

“For me, it seems like it’s a nice gesture and seeing Riley, and how she reacts and the people she affects — it’s just a good feeling,” said Chris.

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