A man and his gentle dog team up and give back

Shepard and Ginger first visited a sick neighbor and now make frequent visits to nursing homes.
Shepard and Ginger first visited a sick neighbor and now make frequent visits to nursing homes. By Mary Meehan

VERSAILLES — This is a story about a man and a dog, and how one good deed morphed into another.

Shelby Shepard is no stranger to good works.

As a member of the Versailles-Woodford County Rotary Club he has helped lead the Repair Affair, which benefits poor and elderly homeowners, for years. He's volunteered countless hours to projects sponsored by his employer, Toyota. He rang a bell for the Salvation Army at Christmas and, in general, is a helpful neighbor and friend.

In Ginger, a golden retriever with a shaggy coat, the color of which is true to her name, he saw another opportunity to give and then give back.

When Shepard and Ginger met six years ago, the dog was abandoned and so obese she couldn't walk. "She was pretty hard for me to lift up," Shepard said.

His wife, Diane, who had once been bitten by a dog, was not terribly keen on having a new pet. But when she met Ginger and the fat dog laid her head on Diane's shoulder, she knew Ginger was meant to be the family dog.

At first, Ginger was to stay mostly outside. Soon she had a bed in the garage. Not long after that, Ginger had the run of the house.

She was so gentle, so eager for affection she soon won over her new owners.

And that's when Shepard began to notice there is "something about an animal that can just bring a smile to people's face."

First Ginger and Shepard befriended an ill neighbor, visiting the man in the hospital. Next, Shepard took Ginger to a nursing home to visit his father-in-law. The furry visitor was unfailingly polite, eager to have her belly rubbed and generally be adored. The spirits of those being visited were buoyed by her presence.

Since then, Ginger and Shepard have become a bit of a fixture on the local charity circuit. When he supports the Tsunami Relief Walk, she's there. When he strolls for cardio health, she saunters along with him.

Shepard's love for volunteering was instilled as a boy, he said. It's a family trait. His brother is a missionary in Japan. His sister is a nurse. For his part, Shelby said there is something about giving of yourself that trumps sending a check.

"It's an old cliché," he said, "but it is rewarding to help other people."

In Ginger, with her calm demeanor and general willingness to please, Shepard has found a partner. She allowed him to perhaps push the limits of pet tolerance by dressing her up for a pet costume contest by strapping a stuffed jockey to her back. (She came in second.)

She showed that same gentle presence as she recently worked the halls of Taylor Manor Nursing Home in Versailles. Residents who have lost the memories of their own pets lit up at the sight of her. Stiff arms stretched to touch her inviting coat.

Shepard said he doesn't know exactly how old Ginger is, but he figures she is 11 or 12 and might not have many years left. He sees his volunteer work with her as a way to make memories. And she touches something in the residents at Taylor Manor.

"She's a nice baby," cooed Margaret Rash, 96, as Ginger sat, head slightly bowed in front of her wheelchair. "Yes, she is."

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