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Learning to Heal


© the American Kennel Club, Inc., 2006

No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from the American Kennel Club, Inc., .

On Schools and health-care facilities all over the country, dogs are spreading cheer and helping people recover from serious injuries and illness. With a little extra training, your dog could join their ranks.

Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz is a writer who specializes in dog topics. She's a Dalmatian breeder-exhibitor and the author of five books, including Your Yorkshire Terrier's Life, Pugs for Dummies, and The Revised Healthy Happy Guide to Miniature Schnauzers.

Reprinted with permission from AKC Family Dog, January/February, 2006.
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Snoozing in his comfy pet carrier, your puppy looks small and helpless now. Fast-forward another year to when he's full-grown, and he won't he so dependent. In fact, your furry friend will be extremely capable of helping others. Time to think four-footed good deeds

Dogs are experts at spreading cheer to the sick, injured, and elderly. As therapy dogs they visit patients in health-care facilities or help therapists rehabilitate children or adults. Wearing therapy-dog vests, these special canines are part of treatment plans where each session has a goal, such as to improve verbal skills or strengthen memory. With a nudge, a nuzzle, or a kiss, these therapists in fur coats are ready, willing, and able to extend a paw at hospitals, schools, or nursing homes. Dogs can even provide lively entertainment at treatment facilities. Fetch a facial tissue? Sure. Dance on their hind legs? Maybe. Roll over and lie down? No problem. When they're not entertaining, therapy dogs are happy just being around those who need them.


Bill McFadden, Ch. Torum's Scarf Michael and Bee Schlesinger in 2001

Any dog, large or small, can help others heal, but not all dogs will be suited to this kind of work. "Besides being healthy, clean, and odor-free, all dogs need to be friendly, outgoing, and truly enjoy being with people," says Michelle Cobey of the Delta Society, a national therapy-dog registry and network in Bellevue, Washington. The Delta Society screens canine candidates and their handlers for its Pet Partners program. "Dogs should also have some basic obedience training and really like what they're doing," Cobey says.

Tuxedo, a Dalmatian, visits Alzheimer's patients and gives obedience demonstrations to children's groups with his owner, Amy Stephens. "Whenever we drive into the parking lot of the facility, Tuxedo gets so excited," says Stephens, of Mendon, Maine. "Once we're inside, his tail never stops wagging."

Speeding Recovery

Many people in hospitals or group homes have had to give up their pets and they desperately miss their dogs. A visit from a guest dog reminds them of happier days and can even help them get well. Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond and the co-author of Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship, says that when people are around animals they are less anxious, their blood pressure drops, and their spirits rise. "Patients who visit with animals have a better chance of recovering after a heart attack and seem to forget about minor aches and pains."


Some dogs are natural healers, but most require some training and certification before they can wag their way into patients' hearts. Owners also need to learn how to handle their dogs around children or adults in hospitals, day-care centers, or wherever canine counselors are needed. There are many national and local organizations that provide training, testing, or registration for therapeutic teams.

Although each group has its own requirements, dogs are expected to have good manners and receive certification from the AKC Canine Good Citizen"" (CGC) program (see sidebar), the Delta Society Pet Partners program or Therapy Dogs International (TDI).


"Besides formal training, it's a good idea to socialize your puppy as much as you can so he can meet different people and experience new surroundings," says Labrador and Golden retriever breeder Carl Liepmann, of Flushing, Michigan. "Take him everywhere you go-the post office, hardware store, or outdoor shopping center-and let people pet him. He'll have plenty of strangers touching him once he begins working as a therapy dog." It also helps if your dog is calm and isn't afraid of medical equipment like IV poles or wheelchairs, and strange, sudden noises such as food trays clattering to the floor or someone screaming. Visiting and assistance dogs also must take it in stride if disabled patients suddenly reach out in uncoordinated gestures or want to hold on a little too tightly.

"Cedar, my Golden Retriever, and I visited patients who were recuperating from head injuries and had limited coordination. I had to train him not to panic if someone grabbed him a little too roughly," says Liepmann. "One patient liked to yell for no reason, which scared me, but about 15 seconds before it happened, Cedar would always start wagging his tail. You don't have to have the smartest dog, you just have to have one who likes people."

Sometimes therapy and assistance dogs even seem to possess magical healing powers. Liepmann remembers a gentleman that he and Cedar visited regularly. "The nurses told us that Louie hadn't spoken in two years, but after seeing Cedar a few times he called out, 'Doggie, doggie!' and began talking to the staff"

The "AAAH" Factor

Well-trained, well-adjusted, and happy dogs of all sizes and shapes make good therapy dogs, but if you have a small breed, be prepared for some serious bed snuggling. Toy breeds and small dogs probably receive the most attention from nursing-home residents. That's because they're cute, cuddly, and very easy to pet and hold. Their ooh-and-aah factor is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

How much of a commitment is involved in having a therapy dog? First, there's the time it takes to train your dog. Dogs must also be reliable under any circumstances and be able to tolerate being petted, or to be quiet when it's called for.

Every facility and organization has different requirements, so it's best to find out before you get started. Also keep in mind that all visitation, therapy, and service work is voluntary, so be prepared to pay for your training and transportation.

Once you sign up, he willing to stay involved, Stephens advises. "It's very disappointing for the residents to have planned therapy-dog visit cancelled. People look forward to these opportunities to break up the day."
Whatever amount of time you do decide to spend volunteering with your dog, make sure that it's quality time It can be as brief as an hour once a month, but forget multitasking with phone calls during the time you spend Therapy visits require your full attention and, as always, your dog's safety should always come first. Plan on keeping an eye on what your dog is doing at all times. You don't want him to accidentally slip and fall on slick floor or to feel threatened by residents or strange equipment.

Stephens typically spends two hours or so each time she and Tux visit a facility. During that time they may visit about two-dozen patients, either by going from room to room, or by putting on an obedience demonstration for a small group. "Therapy visits are only successful if you're totally comfortable in the setting you select," says Stephens. "Don't put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, because it will make your dog uncomfortable. Choose an interaction that works for you." If visitation isn't for you, there are other ways for dogs to help others. You can take your dog to visit schools and read to students through a reading education assistance dog program. While students may struggle with reading on their own, many strive to do well when reading to a canine companion. Dogs can't do everything, but many try very hard to bring smiles everywhere they go. It's warm and fuzzy, canine-style.

Tiny Miracles

by Mary-Frances Makichen

People who do animal-assisted therapy all have special and emotionally moving stories about their volunteer work. "Doing this work is really an exceptional way to witness tiny miracles," says Diane Zdrodowski, whose Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Bentley, is a regular visitor to a nursing home in Blairstown, New Jersey, where he can often be seen happily trotting down a corridor and spreading smiles with a wag of his tail.

In addition to nursing homes, Bentley and Zdrodowski, co-founder of Canine Assisted Resources in Education (CARE), which works in the classroom with special-needs children to provide motivation and emotional support, also make special visits to schools and hospitals.

"A middle-school teacher who knows about my work with Bentley asked if I could start to visit I 10-year-old Jake at school for just 20 minutes, once a week," says Zdrodowski. Sullen and a loner, Jake was a child with a lot of troubles. His father was in jail and his mother was struggling with a drug problem, so he was living with his grandmother. Zdrodowski taught Jake to groom Bentley and to have him perform some tricks. Jake even got to go into other classrooms with Bentley and explain what therapy dogs do and how they're trained. "You could see his self-confidence beginning to bloom," says Zdrodowski. "When Jake came to me one day near the end of the year and asked if I minded if he played with his friends instead of Bentley, my heart felt full of the magic of doing this work."
People are not always conscious of the effects dogs can have on them, but somehow dogs are able to soothe emotional or physical pains in ways no one else can.

Greer Griffith coordinates the Angel on a Leash program that operates at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of New York-Presbyterian, in conjunction with the Westminster Kennel Club. She volunteers with her two Labrador Retrievers, Fauna and Clayton.

After 9/Il, Griffith and Clayton were asked to participate in a special disaster relief effort for those who had lost loved ones during this heartbreaking ordeal.

They, along with grief counselors, therapists, and clergy, were asked to be present on the ferry ride between the relief center and the platform in front of what was left of the Twin Towers. This was such emotionally draining work that even though the ferry ride lasted only 1 0 minutes each way, Griffith and Clayton could do no more than one trip a week. "Dogs are very sensitive, and they know intuitively when someone is ill or upset," says Griffith. On one trip, there was a woman who was inconsolable. A therapist asked Griffith to see if Clayton could help.

"I walked over to this woman, but never said a word to her or Clayton. Clayton jumped onto the seat next to her," says Griffith. "I continued to be as quiet and unobtrusive as I could. The woman began petting Clayton and then put her arm around him and cried into his fur, never saying a word. It was amazing to witness Clayton's ability to comfort her."




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