Rocky the therapy dog has a very cold nose, but an incredibly warm heart.
The two-year-old white Labrador provides comfort for countless Turlock residents both young and old, taking trips to senior living homes throughout town and classrooms at Julien Elementary School — visits that often turn a gloomy day into one filled with hope.
“There’s a gentleness that comes over between the patient and the dog, and they have their own quiet moments together,” Rocky’s owner, Melinda Tripp, said. “Sometimes they need to cry and sometimes they need to just hold him...There are 300 people in this town who think Rocky is their dog.”
Tripp, a retired teacher who has volunteered time with seniors and Lab rescues over the years, got Rocky in 2017 with the intent of training him to become a therapy dog. Rocky moved through the ranks quickly, passing his therapy dog test at just one year old. Most dogs become certified therapy dogs at age two after completing the test, which includes requirements like the dog listening to its handler’s instructions, demonstrating proper temperament around patients, remaining calm around distractions and other dogs and willingly participating in the therapy test, among others.
“They really have to show their stuff,” Tripp said.
Tripp began training Rocky to become a therapy dog at eight months old through A+ Dog Training in Turlock, she said, utilizing locations around town that welcome dog training with open arms, like the Dollar Tree and Home Depot. Socialization is a huge part of therapy dog training, making these busy businesses perfect for teaching a young dog how to behave. Rocky was a natural, receiving his official therapy dog certification just four months after he began training.
“He just has a really quiet way about him and quiet mannerisms,” Tripp said. “I speak with the people we visit, but they often have their own communication with the dog where they invite him to put his paws up next to them or lay. They have their private moments.”
Rocky frequently visits seven Turlock locations: Julien Elementary School, Paramount Court Senior Living, Cypress Assisted Living, Brandel Manor, Sequoia Assisted Living, Covenant Care at Home and Turlock Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
At Julien, Rocky visits with special education students as well as children in two fourth and fifth grade classes. He’s a gentle fellow and allows the students to poke, prod, hug and squeeze him. This is something most dogs would shy away from, Tripp explained, but Rocky’s training has taught him to provide comfort no matter how a student’s affection is displayed.
The students love him and Tripp can’t walk him far on campus without hearing little voices call out his name in excitement.
“He’s been mauled by an entire kindergarten class and he just stands there,” Tripp laughed. “For those kids who get to have him in the classroom, it’s a special deal. For a lot of children who don’t have animals, this gives them access to a dog they may not have anywhere else.”
One memorable moment at Julien that comes to mind for Tripp was a day she and Rocky were called to a classroom where a student laid on the floor, sobbing.
“I told her, ‘You know, Rocky is magic. He’s going to make you feel so much better,’” Tripp said.
Rocky and the student embraced on the floor for a bit, and eventually, the student was able to talk about what had been troubling her.
“I think that you’re always trying to get to and work on the whole child and this adds a different dynamic,” Tripp said “You never know when a child might need to be comforted.”
The elderly often need comforting, too, Tripp explained, whether it be a senior recovering from surgery or someone who doesn’t see their family very often. Rocky has followed seniors from their assisted living homes into hospice and has even been known to lay by the casket of his senior friends who have passed, providing comfort to family members at their memorial services.
“I’ve seen him take away someone’s pain and I’ve even seen him bow his head when one of his hospice patients passed away,” Tripp said. “That’s his job — he knows everybody and he remembers them. I’m amazed at how much he knows.”
Tripp was inspired to volunteer her time as a therapy dog owner after retiring, she said, when she was unsure of what would come next. Her love for both animals and people drove her to look into owning a therapy dog, and the rest is history.
She hopes that she can inspire others who may want to give back and have the time to do so to train dogs of their own.
“In my work, I never know the story the day will tell. I never know what blessing Rocky may bring to any person, but more than anything I hope to be a role model for other people who see me and say, ‘I could do that,’” Tripp said. “There are so many seniors that need attention and they have wonderful stories to tell, but there isn’t enough of me to go around.”