New therapy dog brings comfort and smiles to Life Care Center of Kona

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today Suzzanne Nemick pets Riley the therapy dog at Life Care Center of Kona.

KEAUHOU — Patients at Life Care Center of Kona know Wednesdays are for Riley.

Riley, a 3-year-old golden retriever, is spreading joy and smiles with every tail wag as a certified therapy dog.


“It’s a big plus,” said Suzzanne Nemick, a patient at the skilled nursing facility. “I love it when the dogs come … It makes you feel warm and loving and it’s very good.”

Riley’s owners, Chris and Jo Morrison, saw the need for therapy dogs at the facility through Jo’s job as an occupational therapist. They were inspired to begin Riley’s certification journey when she was just 10 months old.

Riley trained with Focused K9s Hawaii and took basic obedience and agility classes, as well as specialized therapy dog courses such as Canine Good Citizen, medical equipment desensitization, relationship building and behavior modification. She also achieved 300 documented training hours outside the classroom.

After receiving her certification in May 2017, Riley now trots through the Life Care Center of Kona, looking into every room to see who might need some golden comforting.

“When I’m going down the corridors of the hallways and sometimes the patients are sitting in the halls … they see us coming and I can hear them saying, ‘Here comes Riley,’” Chris Morrison said.

With new residents, Riley is able to help with their transition.

“There’s a lot of patients that are either coming from the hospital or from home and all of sudden they’re in a new building with all these new sights and sounds, and here comes Riley down the hall,” said Trish Viegner, Life Care Center of Kona activities director. “Their eyes kind of focus on her and they start to smile when she walks up to the chair, and she’ll sit and nudge their hand and before you know it they’re smiling and petting her … it’s a really nice feeling.

Jo Morrison also has seen Riley’s positive effect on the patients’ behavior. For example, she said, some people at the facility going through stroke rehabilitation and who might be partially limited on one side of their arm will reach out and pet Riley.

“It’s very therapeutic in a lot of different ways,” she said.

Riley’s affectionate personality doesn’t just help comfort patients, she lights up the eyes of Life Care Center staff as well.

“It’s exciting and it brightens up your day,” said Susan Bergdahl, a registered nurse.

Riley isn’t the first therapy dog whose paws have pattered through the center’s halls.

Some might remember Mordy, a red golden retriever who served as a therapy and service dog. When he died in 2015, Kona Lucky — the great-granddog to Mordy — stepped in and also currently visits patients.

With two active therapy dogs cheerfully comforting those in the community, having these furry friends present is something many people hope to see more.

“Every dog is different … So the more dogs we get the better because they all connect to each resident differently,” Viegner said.

Riley is in the process of getting her emotional service animal certification but continues to love going to work, visiting patients every week.


“For me, it seems like it’s a nice gesture, and seeing Riley, and how she reacts and the people she affects — it’s just a good feeling,” Chris Morrison said.

Email Tianna Morimoto at

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