Once every two weeks, Janesville Nursing Home residents wait for Rio to walk into the Janesville Nursing Home with her red handkerchief on and her tail wagging.

A few years ago when Rene Niemczyk’s father was at the nursing home, she decided it would be a good time to follow through on a thought she’d had for awhile — to get her dog Rio, a purebred Sheltie, certified as a therapy dog.

Unfortunately, her father passed away before Rio could pay him a visit, but Niemczyk had heard nursing home residents in particular respond positively to therapy pets, so Rene and Rio made it a bi-weekly event.

“It is so heartwarming to see how (Rio) responds to people and how they respond to her,” Niemczyk said. “It’s good socialization for myself and Rio.”

When Niemczyk and Rio visited the nursing home July 9, Viola Barbknecht was napping, so Niemczyk didn’t want to disturb her. But when Rio was back Tuesday, Barbknecht told Niemczyk “Oh don’t worry about waking me when Rio is here, I have all night to sleep.”

Niemczyk placed Rio in Barbknecht’s lap while the three talked about what was new, their families and believe it or not – cats.

“To watch the enjoyment my dog can bring to other people who can’t have their pets, it warms my heart,” Niemczyk said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘can Rio stay with me?’”

For more than two years, Rio has developed relationships with most of the residents. Every other Tuesday when Niemczyk puts the collar and handkerchief on Rio, the pooch gets excited because she knows she’s going to see some friends.

On their way to their third visit of the day, Ruth Waber was already waiting. She’d heard the buzz — that Rio was coming — so she anxiously waiting in the doorway for Rio’s visit.

“Rio likes Ruth,” Niemczyk said. “Ruth gives her lots of pets.”

For the next five minutes, or so, Rio sad it Waber’s lap and got quite comfortable, so much so, that it looked like she was being lulled to sleep.

Waber said it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Rio decided to stay and nap, but they had more visits to make.

“I suppose you have to go see more people,” Waber told Niemczyk, as she looked hesitant to see Rio go. “I’ll remember you’re coming in two weeks. I really like (Rio’s) company.”

Down the hall from Waber, Bob Williams was also waiting for Rio. For Williams, Rio couldn’t get to him fast enough.

“I think she knows me,” Williams said and Rio sat in his lap. “She looks to be quite satisfied.”

Williams and Niemczyk talked about dogs and living on a farm while Rio made herself at home in a lap once again. They were more than visiting residents in a nursing home – they were visiting friends, asking how their families were and exchanging titles of books to read.

In addition to visiting the nursing home every two weeks, for the past two years during the school year Niemczyk and Rio would visit Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton Elementary School.

Through a program called Tail Waggin’ Tots, students would read aloud to Rio. Next year, if the principal and teachers are receptive to the program, they’re hoping to be back for a third year.

“We’re a team, Rene and Rio,” Niemczyk said. “I think I get just as much enjoyment out of the visits as (the residents) do.”

Reach reporter Jennifer Holt at 837-5446, or follow her on Twitter at @WCNjennifer

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