- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

WALLINGFORD, Conn. (AP) - Sheldon Mayne sat in his wheelchair and tossed an orange tennis ball across a recreation room at Gaylord Hospital. After a few excited jumps, Galya, a Labrador Retriever, raced after the ball.

“Here girl, here Galya,” said Mayne, smiling as he waved his hands to signal Galya to come back.

“Look at her,” said Mayne as Galya made her way back to his wheelchair to give him the ball. “Good girl, Galya. You’re such a good girl.”

Mayne, a Bridgeport resident, is receiving treatment at Gaylord Hospital after suffering a brain injury in a motorcycle accident. Galya helps him and many other patients at Gaylord in their recovery.

Galya is a 2-year-old working facility dog trained by Canine Companions for Independence for two years before she came to the rehabilitation hospital.

Her extensive training separates Galya from a therapy dog, which only needs about six weeks of training.

“She’s here specifically to work with patients in our spinal cord injury and brain injury programs,” said Kimberly Thompson, who handles marketing and communications at Gaylord. “She will visit the patients … Maybe (physical therapy) wants somebody to walk a little farther. They’ll have the dog visit with the patient and then the patient is walking a little bit farther, walking the dog around the facility.”

Recently, Heather Hancort, a registered nurse and Galya’s handler, demonstrated the number of commands that Galya understands.

With a leash in her hand, Hancort walked up to a door and told Galya “push.”

Galya jumped on her hind legs and used her nose to push the button on the wall to open the door.

“Very good. Very nice,” said Hancort.

Galya can retrieve items off the ground, such as socks or a TV remote when she hears “get.” She can also turn off light switches and open and close doors. Galya closes drawers on the command “push.”

“She has about 50 commands. She’s super intelligent,” said Hancort.

Since Galya started at Gaylord in September, she has improved patient morale and motivation, Hancort and Thompson said. She also helps reduce anxiety and creates positivity, said Thompson.

Visits with Galya typically range from 10 to 15 minutes and sometimes up to a half hour.

Mayne enjoyed playing ball with Galya and petting her.

“This dog is happy to see me,” said Mayne.

Mayne made jokes about wanting to adopt her and “take her home” and how she was such a “calm” dog.

So many people have signed up to have visits with Galya that Hancort said she has to allow Galya to take a nap during the day.

“It’s an interesting concept and it’s really working out so well there’s almost a waiting list for people that want to see her,” said Thompson. “It’s an exciting program, amenity, here at Gaylord Hospital.”

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Information from: Record-Journal, http://www.record-journal.com

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