DADE CITY — It was after dinner, and the Heritage Park nursing home was winding down for the night. The white hallways were empty except for a man in pink socks who had stationed his wheelchair underneath the ball toss schedule on the wall.
Thanks to a heavy wooden door, he could not hear the hoopla going on inside the cafeteria.
There, cameras flashed and stacks of finger sandwiches waited under plastic. "Congrats Grads" signs hung on the walls next to hand sanitizer dispensers, and blue balloons floated above a scuffed upright piano.
About 30 friends, spouses, and grandchildren, armed with cameras and tripods, filled the nursing home cafeteria Tuesday night to watch five dogs graduate from mere pets to therapy dogs.
These animals and their owners were fully trained to visit, and hopefully bring a little joy to, patients at hospitals and nursing homes. Some would go on to hospice training.
"This is really a big deal here," marvelled Bill Peters, who had come in support of Angel, his friend's cocker spaniel.
Along with Angel, two golden retrievers — one who was previously afraid of people — graduated Tuesday. They shared the spotlight with a pug whose owner was trying to fill her time after a "forced retirement," and a nurse who enlisted her pet after seeing a therapy dog work with a cerebral palsy patient.
"It was the first time I saw (that patient) smile," said Adrienne Harris, a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
For the past month, the five dogs have been taught to remain calm around a wheelchair or the noisy clanking of a walker. They've endured the screeching of whistles as their owners tested the dogs' reactions under stress. They've learned to ride elevators and walk in reverse.
As part of the training, the dogs were brought on three supervised patient visits.
Rae Rice, Angel's owner, recalled meeting a man with dementia.
"He had the saddest eyes. I said 'this is Angel, do you want to pet her?' " Rice said. "He reached out his hands and started to smile. It was a blessing."
Sandi Vaughan, who founded Pooches At Work Serving (or PAWS,) got the idea to start her program 10 years ago while visiting her father in a nursing home. He had not spoken in several months and his health was rapidly deteriorating. Then, a therapy dog handler walked into his room with a golden retriever.
"He started laughing out loud. He said 'dog.' I was so thrilled just to get him back for a little bit."
Now, she and fellow instructor Charlotte Swindell drive from their Sumter County homes to teach and oversee classes in Pasco and Lake counties.
They have certified about 350 dogs in the past nine years. The classes are free and the only compensation Swindell and Vaughan receive is whatever's dropped into a gift jar at the end of the night.
When asked why she does it for free, Vaughan dismisses the question. Strangers have approached her on the street and praised her work, she said.
"That's my reward."
Proponents of therapy dog programs say the animals are a calming force. Rehab patients will train longer with a dog present, they say, and normally unresponsive people light up when the dogs approach.
"It's real," said Ebony Pickett, activities director and occupational therapist at Heritage Park.
Tuesday night, the graduating dogs and their owners were called to the front of the room. They received blue vests that marked their status as official therapy dogs. Small graduation caps were tied around their heads.
By the end of the night, most of the caps were on the floor, dangling from the dogs' chins or tucked into a human pocket.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7312.