ORANGE PARK – Despite being just 14 months old, an Australian Shepherd lived in five shelter homes. But everything changed when a resident took him up for adoption from SAFE Animal Shelter in …
ORANGE PARK – Despite being just 14 months old, an Australian Shepherd lived in five shelter homes. But everything changed when a resident took him up for adoption from SAFE Animal Shelter in Middleburg in 2015.
That was nearly eight years ago for the trick-learning, treat-loving “Deacon,” who has risen to community stardom as a therapy dog and athlete on the American Kennel Club circuit.
Deacon now competes for championships in agility and rally competitions. Still, it may not have been possible without Keystone Heights’ Lori Coleman, who worked for the Clay Humane Society as an Administrative Assistant for 27 years, who believed the dog could be a therapy dog.
“I rescued him from the shelter intending to become a therapy dog,” she said.
Deacon, who comes from an intelligent breed of herding hounds, was a quick study under Coleman’s direction. She is also responsible for observing and testing for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.
“Two of the things to really look for are leash manners and having a little bit of self-control. Being able to be interested but contained. So, that’s what we look for in a therapy dog, and I could see those qualities in him, so I decided to go ahead and adopt him. We started training and working towards becoming a therapy dog,” Coleman said.
After adopting him, Deacon became a fully-certified therapy dog by the Alliance in just six months.
“We just started logging visits because we wanted to keep track of how many places that (Deacon) visited,” she said.
That is because the American Kennel Club has a titling program that tracks visits. If there are many visits, the dog can receive an award.
And that’s exactly what happened for Deacon.
He earned his “Therapy Dog Supreme” title a month ago ago when recording his 600th visit at the Clay County Agricultural Fair.
It’s the highest title for a therapy dog in the American Kennel Club.
Then, after earning the last of his master points at a Perry, Georgia, rally competition in April, he won the Rally Championship crown, which is the highest title for American Kennel Club Rally Obedience.
After the big performance at the Georgia State Fairgrounds, Deacon’s community service and athletic feats put him in an elite class, earning both the THDS and RACH titles.
To earn the THDS title, the Australian Shepard has been to plenty of places in the county and beyond to comfort humans in suffering or need a little extra boost of emotional support.
“Someone told me, ‘I just really needed this today. This is exactly what I needed today,’” Coleman said.
On one occasion, Deacon was at the Clay County Courthouse providing support during a sentencing hearing.
“A victim requested a therapy dog during a sentencing hearing, so we were there with her throughout the proceedings, and she was able to pet him. (Deacon) went up with her while she was able to read her statement, and having him next to her made a huge impact for her and allowed her to complete her statement,” she said.
But what was to happen next was even more of a testament to the healing powers of the dog.
“When she got back to her seat, she completely let it go. Her walls were just down when she finished, and she just bawled. Deacon crawled across the seats over to her lap and just laid down, and she just ran her fingers through her hair,” Coleman said.
The dog has visited several local nursing homes and made trips to the Jacksonville International Airport. Now trips to the airport and nursing homes are becoming less frequent.
That’s because of COVID-19 and the long commute from the pair’s two-acre parcel and home in Keystone Heights to Duval County takes 75 minutes, which ended up becoming too challenging.
Deacon now sticks to a simpler plan.
His primary job is to visit the HCA Florida Orange Park Hospital, making his way around the facility by visiting patients in the Trauma ICU, PCU and Behavioral Health units on the second and third floors. He can also be found at the Life Care Center of Orange Park and Challenger Enterprises.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to do what we do. I am just very grateful and thankful to participate in what we do. I am just very grateful and thankful to participate. (Deacon and I) have grown a lot (during this process),” she said.
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