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Nanook is one of the therapy dogs that's part of the Elite Canine's Comfort Dogs squad. 

Among the Forsyth County recipients of the 2019 Governor’s Volunteer Service Awards was a dedicated team of volunteers — including nine pups.

Elite Canine’s Comfort Dogs, founded by Geralyn Kelly, reaches out to those in need in places and circumstances that are truly challenging, where the presence of a gentle dog can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Kelly relocated from New Jersey to Winston-Salem in 2008, and when she came south she wanted to continue the therapy dog work she had begun with her dog, Foster. After four years of training dogs as part of a national pet store chain, she decided to launch her own business in 2012.

Elite Canine was born.

The Comfort Dogs, originally named Fostering Friendship, gave Kelly an opportunity to take what she knew about training dogs and use this skill to reach out to her new neighbors in need. Among those neighbors: people with Down syndrome and those suffering from ALS. The Elite Canine Cuddle Station can be found at the Suicide Prevention Walk and the Deacon Dash for Down Syndrome; really any place where people need support.

“We do a lot of things that other people won’t do,” says Kelly.

The Comfort Dogs, typically working in teams, visit businesses to provide stress relief to employees, and detention centers to comfort officers who work in demanding circumstances. Her team is small — and she’s always looking to add members — but extremely dedicated. They’ve been known to work three events in one weekend because the need for that connection is so great.

Kelly has strict guidelines for her dogs, using certification standards from Therapy Dogs International, a national accreditation program for therapy dogs, and adding her own high standards; she knows the work these dogs do is important. Her team is busy, but it’s vital for her that these dogs really use their certifications.

“There’s such a need,” she says.

Her work has been recognized with the Governor’s Volunteer Service Award and the Morykwas Humane Citizen Award, but it’s the connections the dogs make in the community that mean the most to Kelly.

One incident that means a good deal to her involves the father of Mary Haglund, who owns Mary’s Gourmet Diner. Her father, Frank, was very ill and she contacted Kelly to ask if she could visit her father with one of her dogs; he had dementia and was agitated. So, Kelly brought her dog, Nanook, to visit him. Nanook came in and went immediately to Mary and her mother, realizing that they needed comfort, too. After about an hour, Frank had a lucid moment and Nanook went right to his bed so Frank could touch him. For seven minutes, Frank pet and talked to the dog.

Frank died a few days later, but he had those precious moments when he was himself — and he spent them connecting with Nanook.

This moment solidified Kelly’s commitment to using her special and unique skills to bring peace to those in dark places.

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