By TAMMY SMITH — firstname.lastname@example.org
GULFPORT -- Eleven graduation candidates waited for their ceremony to begin Saturday morning in one of Memorial Hospital at Gulfport's education classrooms. Some greeted everyone who entered the room, others quietly sat and still others watched the proceedings with avid interest.
Unlike most graduates, however, these already have been working hard at their lives' professions. They now are the latest graduates of the Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi pet therapy group.
These dogs, of a variety of sizes and breeds, have passed training to be visiting friends to those in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospice care as well as to help children develop reading skills.
"These dogs are already working," said Patsy Thomas, president of Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi, as well as founder and coordinator. "Many of them have started working at nursing homes to get them prepared to go into hospitals."
The four-legged students walked with their owners down the short aisle to receive their diplomas as well as commemorative blue and yellow neckerchiefs and to have their photos taken with tiny mortar boards on their furry heads.
Blue and yellow, Thomas noted, are the group's theme colors for a reason.
"We deliver sunshine to our clients -- that's the yellow -- and the blue, when you win first place, you associate that with a blue ribbon, and that stands for excellence," she said.
The group is affiliated with Pet Partner, formerly the Delta Society, a national organization of therapy pets and their equally trained owners.
Dogs must complete a 21-skills set and be able to work with ease around medical equipment, such as IV poles, wheelchairs and canes.
Two veterans of the program received special recognition as volunteers of the year. They are Dixie and owner Mary Pecoul, and Vossie and owner Traci James.
Dixie and Pecoul also were officially recognized as recipients of the President's Volunteer Service Award, along with Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi. The group logged in 1,200 hours of volunteer time last year, and the team of Dixie and Pecoul provided 600 of them.
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