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Originally published Monday, March 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Therapy dog: big heart unleashed

"I can still eat, gab and complain, and I do it all," confided Emma Holmes, 87, scooting her wheelchair behind Annabelle, a luscious English...

Akron Beacon Journal

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AKRON, Ohio — "I can still eat, gab and complain, and I do it all," confided Emma Holmes, 87, scooting her wheelchair behind Annabelle, a luscious English bulldog and the attraction of the day.

Stand back.

Dressed in a sequined pink brimmed hat and feathery boa, the 50-pound pooch provided a breathtaking view, a combination of slink and waddle as she strolled through the Cuyahoga Falls Village Retirement Community, home to about 130 seniors, including the charming Holmes.

"She's the dearest thing," said another resident, Anita Plazzo, 80. "It's the second time I've seen her. I'm still fairly new here."

It's a regular route for the therapy dog and her mother hen, Cindy Vacco of Kent, Ohio, who've been visiting the home for four years to bring doggy kisses and good cheer to folks who sometimes struggle to find them.

Annabelle understands the aches and pains of her senior friends and at 7 is practically a Red Hat lady herself. A victim of puppy-mill breeding, she was purchased in a store and cost Vacco $17,000 in medical intervention, not counting her prescriptions.

"I feel like I own a wing" at the local veterinary hospital, Vacco said. "Do not buy your dogs from a pet store. Go through a breeder or a rescue."

The endearing bulldog has hip dysplasia, dry eye, seizures and water on the brain, all from irresponsible breeding. Despite their sturdy appearance, bulldogs and other purebreds are predisposed to certain genetic weaknesses even without the problems of bad breeding, a chance not worth taking, Vacco said.

She doesn't hesitate to lift her goddess pup onto a wheelchair or cart when the dog gets tired to give her hips a rest. That also compensates for her inconvenient height when visiting people in wheelchairs and beds. Annabelle and Vacco are a Therapy Dog International dog/handler team, licensed and insured by the volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registering dogs to visit hospitals and other institutions.

Dogs with easygoing temperaments are tested and evaluated by certified examiners (see www.tdi-dog.org for information). TDI dogs are unflappable around service equipment, crutches and wheelchairs and barely sniff when an alarm goes off.

Therapy dogs seem to understand the nature of their work and let strangers paw them for pure pleasure. With just a little canine teasing, silent seniors have spoken and sullen ones have brightened up, said Nan DeMoss, activities director at the retirement home.

"Cindy knows the residents by name," she said, and she hears about it if somehow someone gets missed during a visit. "They bring such happiness to the residents."

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This particular Saturday, Annabelle danced in a circle of wheelchairs demonstrating her amazing tricks. The one that got the loudest aahs of appreciation was flattening out on her round belly to suck up a kibble Vacco held close to the floor. Acts like that are hard to follow.

DeMoss advertised for a therapy dog and started the tradition when the facility opened eight years ago.

"I don't have any family around and look forward to seeing her," said Emma Holmes, a Marine in WWII.

Vacco piled the pooch on Holmes' lap, and they scooted down the hallway for the inevitable goodbye.

"She loves riding on the elevator and sleeps in the car and is dead for the rest of the afternoon," when they go home, said Vacco.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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