In July of 2013, after 65 years of marriage, Dick Nixon of Garden City was suddenly facing life without his beloved wife, Margaret.
Unknown to him then, a little dog named Ladybug had been rescued by All 4 Paws Animal Rescue in Pawleys Island and was living in a foster home, waiting for someone to adopt her.
Now, seven months later, as a certified Canine Angels therapy dog team, Nixon and Ladybug are sharing the joy and love they brought to each other with seniors in adult care facilities.
Ladybug is a beagle/Boston terrier mix. Nixon sometimes calls her Bug.
“This is a therapy thing that’s been a Godsend to me. Bug has provided comfort to me, particularly when I needed it, and I am hopeful she can do the same for others,” Nixon said, shortly after he and Ladybug passed their final test for certification on Jan. 25.
“Bug and I have put in a lot of time training,” he said.
Canine Angels is a nonprofit that was founded by Rick Kaplan in 2011 in North Myrtle Beach. The organization provides free service dogs to veterans. It also has a Therapy Dog Program that fits into Canine Angels’ overall mission of rescuing dogs and nurturing their natural gifts.
Certified therapy dogs and handlers visit hospices, nursing homes, schools and many other places where the dogs perform their magic.
Jeanne Maxon, of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., is a volunteer who coordinates the Canine Angels Therapy Dog program and trains the teams to prepare for testing.
Kaplan is the final evaluator, and Nixon and Bug met his high requirements.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Maxon said. “Ladybug was a trooper. Her eyes were wide open. She obeyed every command. She made us very proud.”
“We owe a great deal of gratitude to Jeanne,” Nixon said. “Without her instruction, patience and devotion, we would not have made it. She is very dedicated to this program and to dogs.”
Last July, a few days after Margaret died in her sleep, their daughter, Sally Gosselin, was with Nixon when he mentioned that he wanted a dog. Gosselin, a veterinary technician who lives in Connecticut, quickly agreed. Together, they started searching for the right dog, and it wasn’t long before they found Ladybug.
When Nixon took Ladybug for walks, he started telling people that she was his therapy dog. Then one day, he thought about a time when his son, Russ Nixon of Conway, took his bulldog to visit Dick’s mother, who was a resident in a local nursing facility. He recalled how a slobbering bulldog brought so much joy to people there that day.
That’s when Nixon had the idea to train Ladybug to be a therapy dog.
“I thought, if she can do this for me, why can’t she do it for others?” he said.
The therapy dog program now has 18 handlers and 14 dogs visiting numerous places. Some of them, including Maxon and her golden retrievers, Lady and Bode, also visit Brunswick County Schools and St. James Elementary School in Murrells Inlet.
“It’s heartwarming that we’re able to do this and bring smiles to people, and we have some amazing dogs, so it works for everybody,” Maxon said.
At the schools, the dogs listen and snuggle as second-graders read to them and improve their reading skills. The dogs also interact with autistic students, helping improve their communication skills.
Nixon and Ladybug, along with other teams, have already visited seniors in several facilities, and they are looking forward to visiting students.
“They’ve been a hit every time,” Maxon said. “Dick wants to give back to his community and he wants to use his beautiful dog to do it.”
Nixon has been a little amazed at how older people who are shut-in react to the dogs. The visits often evoke memories from the residents, who tell Nixon and the other handlers stories about dogs they once had, and it is heartwarming to listen to those stories, Nixon said.
Nixon said that Ladybug is sort of disadvantaged by being so small. She can’t lay her head in a sitting person’s lap like the bigger dogs can, but she stands up and puts her feet in their laps, and her tail is always wagging.
He said he hopes that anyone who is looking for a dog will look at the shelters and try to rescue one.
“I could not have designed a better dog than I’ve got,” he said.
The Therapy Dog Program gets many requests for visits and can use more dog/handler teams.
“We could do a lot more work and spread some more smiles if we had more teams,” Maxon said.
To get involved, call Maxon at 910-575-6476 or apply online at www.canineangelsservicedogs.org/volunteer-application. Email Canine Angels at info@canineAngelsServiceDogs.org.