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10-year-old beagle helps to bring smiles to the faces of residents, staff at Willmar nursing home

WILLMAR - It's mid-morning, and Baily is making the rounds at Infinia.

As the 10-year-old beagle trots down the hall, there's a constant stream of attention from residents, staff and visitors.

Marlys Schafer, finance director, reaches down to pat him on the head.

"He's just wonderful. He's so friendly," she said. "The residents love him."

Since January, Baily has been coming to work five days a week with his owner, Don Burr, a social worker at Infinia.

"Most people bring a briefcase to work. I bring a dog carrier," Burr said.

Baily's day at the nursing home starts at 8 a.m., when he arrives with Burr. For the next eight hours he has a busy schedule: going room to room, interacting with residents and staff, enjoying frequent treats, and accompanying Burr to meetings and one-on-one visits with residents.

"He's pretty tired by Friday," Burr said. "He sleeps all weekend. He puts in a hard week."

Burr, a lifelong fan of beagles, acquired Baily in the summer of 2007.

He was living in Arizona at the time, working for the state's child protection service, when he happened to spot an ad for a free beagle.

The dog turned out to be Baily, who'd been raised and trained by a 12-year-old girl.

"He was perfect for me. He was quiet. He was easy," Burr said.

A new home and a new owner were an adjustment, however, for a 10-year-old dog -- even more so when Burr moved this past December from Arizona to Minnesota.

Worried that Baily was showing signs of depression, Burr came up with the idea of bringing him to work.

"I didn't want him home alone. I thought maybe we would both benefit," he said.

He pitched the idea to Infinia's administration and "everyone was for it," he said. The resident and family council also supported the idea.

Dogs, cats, birds and fish are becoming common sights at long-term care facilities. There's been ample research that supports the physical and emotional benefits of the human-animal bond.

Burr is seeing this firsthand as a result of Baily's presence at Infinia.

Visits from a dog have helped many residents feel less lonely, he said. "A lot of people who are isolated in their rooms are welcoming of him."

Some of the residents with dementia have been interacting with Baily, Burr said.

In one case, a resident who rarely spoke came out of her shell and began asking about Baily, he said.

Burr has seen the dog have a calming effect. "The people with depression light up a little bit when they see him," he said.

When Burr makes one-on-one visits to residents, he often brings Baily along to help put people at ease and encourage them to talk about their own pets and social history.

Families and visitors also enjoy Baily, he said. "Kids love him. They'll walk him. He's entertainment for them."

For Eddy Torgerson, Baily is a reminder of his own four dogs. Torgerson, 76, of Lake Lillian, has been staying at Infinia while undergoing radiation therapy, which he recently completed.

He hopes to be reunited soon with his dogs, who are staying at a boarding kennel. In the meantime, he has Baily.

Torgerson chuckles when he describes his first meeting with the dog.

"He came and smelled my shoes. Just like that, he knew," he said.

Brad Bloomquist, the facility's administrator, said Baily has been "a very valuable addition to the team."

"As a dog lover myself, I knew the therapeutic benefits of having a dog in the building would be great," he said. "I said, 'Why not bring him in?' He brings smiles to a lot of faces and that's what it's all about."

Baily seldom barks, and he's so well-trained that he spends most of the day off-leash, taking occasional naps in Burr's office.

"It's worked out very well," said Karen Knapp, director of nursing. "He knows where to go. He knows what he's supposed to do and where he should be."

His one downfall: He can't resist treats, so he's banned from the dining room during resident mealtimes.

"Everybody wants to feed him," said Schafer. "He's getting fat."

Burr said he'd like to develop more activities with Baily that might have some therapeutic benefit for the residents at Infinia.

The beagle has become such a familiar sight that when he and his owner were gone one day last week, people noticed.

"The next day everyone was wondering not where I was but where he was. They love him," Burr said. "He's helped in a wide area without even knowing he's helping. It's unconditional love."