Therapy dogs, and their owners, give something back

by Keith Barber

Barbara Paul stood at the center of a circle composed of a dozen dogs and their owners, and informed the group that they would be working on reactions and distractions for the next 45 minutes. Paul, the instructor of an eight-week therapy dog class at the Winston- Salem Dog Training Club, had created a “minefield” of doggie treats and toys to test the animals’ responsiveness to the “leave it” command.

As the canines started their walkabouts, Jeanne White, founder of the club, explained that the exercise was extremely important for therapy dogs to master. In a hospital or nursing home, any number of foreign objects could fall to the floor, including prescription medication, and that could prove fatal for the animals.

The purpose of the class is to prepare dogs for the Therapy Dogs International test, which is sanctioned by the Delta Society — a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving lives through service and therapy dogs.

Sue Malone and her hairless rat terrier, Tinkerbell, participated in the July 22 class.

Malone said Tinkerbell’s extraordinary sensitivity to elderly people inspired her to get her certified as a therapy dog.

“I think we’ll [visit] nursing homes because she really seems to like elderly people, and they don’t get as many visitors,” Malone said. “Plus it’s a way to give back to society.”

White said one risk for therapy dogs is the emotional trauma of losing a patient with whom the dog has formed a bond. Therapy dog guidelines call for pet owners to protect their dogs at all costs at all times, White said, because dogs experience feelings of depression, too. When that happens, White advises her clients to change their dog’s routine and visit different areas of a hospital’ or nursing home to help the dog move on. Since the early 1980s, Jeanne and her husband, George, have been taking their therapy dogs to the Arbor Acres retirement community in Winston-Salem. Ten years ago, Forsyth Medical Center opened its facility to therapy dog teams and Jeanne and George have been going every Thursday afternoon since. NC Baptist Hospital began its therapy dog program 11 years ago under the leadership of Suzanne Melcher.

Dog team interactions with patients are always led by either a licensed recreation therapist or a child life specialist, Melcher explained. Sometimes the dogs are just there for a friendly visit, and sometimes there are goal-specific visits. For example, stroke victims can be encouraged to work on their affected side by playing fetch with the dog with their affected hand. But the emotional lift dogs give patients far outweighs the physical therapy benefits.

“It’s so fantastic because dogs are so accepting,” Melcher said.

Currently, the therapy dog program at Baptist Hospital has around 15 animals and a range of breeds including a border collie, golden lab/collie mix, a Chihuahua mix and a bull mastiff. The program was piloted in 1999 in just two areas of the hospital, but has expanded to six areas, Melcher said.

“It’s huge,” Melcher said. “More and more you’re seeing dogs used in a therapeutic setting in the hospital and the dog owners deserve a lot of the credit for that.”

Jeanne and George White have been training dogs since the early 1960s, and lobbied for decades for Baptist and Forsyth hospitals to allow therapy dogs to complement their patients’ recovery and rehabilitation.

“They just finally gave in and they realized it was a good thing,” Jeanne said.

In the therapy dog class, Barbara Paul instructed the canine candidates and their owners on how to approach a patient in a wheelchair. Paul demonstrated how you should always bring the dog to the side of the wheelchair and never approach head on. For smaller dogs, it’s acceptable to ask the patient if they would like to hold them.

“That’s therapy for them,” Paul said.

“They just love to hold them.”

The joy of the unconditional love dogs give so freely was evinced by the radiant smiles of the dog owners throughout the training session. Jeanne said the therapy dog program is a win-win for both the givers and receivers of animal therapy, which makes its survival so important.

“We can’t let this program fail,” she said.