Annabelle isn’t a typical resident at Havenwood of Onalaska. She’s smaller… and furrier. That’s because Annabelle is a pet therapy dog. Helen, her owner, lives at Havenwood of Onalaska, where she shares joy (in the form of pet visits) with her neighbors.

Four years ago, Helen brought her new teddy bear puppy (a Shih Tzu and Bichon mix), Annabelle, to training. There the pair worked on socialization and commands. A few months later, Annabelle passed a test to become a certified companion dog through the American Kennel Club. “She passed with flying colors,” added Helen.

Though Helen has always loved animals, her connection with therapy pets is personal. She had an elderly aunt who lived in a senior living community. When Helen would visit, she would bring her dogs, and even though they weren’t officially certified, they brought great joy to her aunt. “Ever since then, I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind,” Helen explained. “I knew what I’d do once I retired.”

So, after an education career lasting for more than 30 years, Helen began to chase her dream. After Annabelle passed her test, Helen started bringing her to visit residents at Onalaska. She loved spending time with the residents, and they loved visiting with her and petting Annabelle. At the time, Helen wasn’t a resident, so the pandemic ended visits shortly after they began. But when Helen experienced health complications, she knew a place she could call home.

“I knew what a lovely place Havenwood was. I was thrilled they would allow me to be there with my dogs,” she said. So, Helen became a resident and waited until she could start visiting her neighbors with a furry friend. As restrictions loosened, Helen was able to host visits in the community room. Now, she’s able to go door-to-door with Annabelle again.

Annabelle is special, and Helen and other residents know it. One of Helen’s favorite moments was when they visited a woman who’d just received difficult test results. Right away, Annabelle jumped into her lap. “Somehow dogs just know,” said Helen. “They know who needs them.”

Sharing her love of dogs with those around her is one of Helen’s biggest passions: “It’s so heartwarming for me. There isn’t a day I’ve done this that I doubt Annabelle has put a smile on someone’s face. She brings comfort, a bit of home, and maybe even reminders of past pets. She helps them know it’s going to be ok.”