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Therapy dog visits nursing homes, kids

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(EDMOND) - Victoria Diane is a ball of white fluff.

She has intense black eyes and a little black button nose. The rest of her is all white fur. This purebred Bichon Frise also is the faithful companion of Edmond's Shirl Yancey, and a delight to hospital and nursing home patients and kids at the Edmond Library.

You see, Victoria Diane leads a full life as a certified therapy pet working on behalf of Paws for Friendship Inc. She's no layabout destined to bark at birds and alleycats. Instead, this small-boned dog hardly barks at all. She and Yancey now make regular visits to those who can no longer enjoy being outside or don't have their own pets.

``She loves to socialize,'' Yancey said of her beloved pet. ``Doing therapy work was one of my main goals when I retired. That's a dual opportunity to make therapy visits to children or adults in hospitals or nursing homes. It also gives you a chance to do the work of the Lord.''

Monday, after two visits to different Alterra Sterling House homes, Victoria Diane was too tired to be interviewed, but she was willing to give a friendly greeting before taking a short nap. While these activities keep the little dog and her owner busy, there's a much bigger role for Victoria Diane to play in the upcoming month.

Yancey and a steering committee of other helpers are organizing ``The Gathering 2001,'' which is the first meeting of Bichon Frise owners in the state. It is set for Oct. 28 at Edmond's Mitch Park. This event will feature a dog show of bichons, a silent auction and a chance for members of the fledgling group to network.

Yancey started the Bichon Frise Group of Oklahoma this year for fanciers of the purebred breed once known as ``the little sheep dog.'' She did this with help and support from her friend Sherry Langley, also of Edmond.

``We discovered there are people all over the state who have bichons,'' Yancey said.

Langley is quick to give most of the credit to Yancey, who learned how to design a Web page for the group's Web site. Langley owns a Yorkie and a poodle, but she has learned about the bichon breed through Yancey and her boss, who also owns a bichon.

``A lot of people like dogs and the (bichon) breed, but they can't afford to get involved in AKC,'' Langley said.

This statewide group will give bichon owners a chance to get to know one another without having to pay dues, and a chance to show their dogs even without meeting all the requirements of the American Kennel Club, whose rules prohibit showing dogs that have been spayed or neutered.

Bichon Frise is French and means ``Bichon of the curly hair,'' according to the group's Web site. The dog originated several centuries ago, but was not classified as a breed until the early 1900s.

Bichons are known for their excellent companionship and few health problems.

But their most distinctive characteristic is their fluffy, white fur that stands out from their bodies looking like little cottonballs on legs.

Yancey explains that the dogs actually have two layers of hair, making them more ``cold-weather'' dogs. The first layer is a straight layer of hair close to their bodies and the second layer is a mass of curly, white cottony hair that springs back in shape after touching it.

``If you don't groom them once a day, you're in trouble,'' said Yancey, who is a native of Washington, D.C., and a retiree from the Rural Development Administration.

Before retiring, Yancey knew she wanted a companion dog, but she was not sure what kind of breed would be best for her. She began researching on the Internet and visiting dog shows.

``The first time I walked into a show and saw a bichon, it gave me a heart-stopping feeling,'' she said. ``I used to ride horses and it was the same feeling I had for horses. This was the first dog I'd ever met that had that effect on me.''

A little more than a year later, Yancey found Victoria Diane, who was then a 4-week-old puppy. She visited the puppy regularly until she was ready to be taken home permanently. Since then, ``guardian'' and pet have been inseparable. And the name Victoria is no coincidence either. Yancey's apartment is decorated in a Victorian theme with colorful lamps, warm colors from that period and lace tablecloths.

While Yancey concentrates on the bichon group's first large event, she's also hoping that funds raised from the silent auction will help the group start achieving its other main goal of rescue and abuse prevention.

Group members across the state will network and try to provide homes for purebred bichons who suddenly find themselves homeless after the death of an owner, or who are being abused or need to be taken in for other reasons.

The group's goal is to raise enough funds to care for two dogs initially, which Yancey said could cost several hundred dollars. The group also is taking donations of spare leashes and dog carriers to have on hand for their rescue work.

Mainly, Yancey wants to get across the intelligence and humanity of the small dogs.

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