9:39 PM EDT, September 12, 2012
As any dog lover knows, canines have special powers. Dogs can engage us in ways humans can't. This is especially true with seniors. There is a growing body of medical research that shows how interacting with dogs (and other pets) improve seniors' emotional and physical well-being.
This is where therapy dogs come in.
"I've seen people who are not communicating at all totally come to life when the dog came in," says Penny Brcich, a member of Pawsitive Therapy for 15 years.
Therapy dogs have various designations and responsibilities, from cheering up folks in the hospital to actually assisting with a patient's physical therapy, such as walking down the hall. Therapy dogs are not the service dogs that assist the disabled. Rather, they are owned and trained by everyday folks who want to volunteer in their community by sharing their animal with others in a social setting often a hospital, nursing home, assisted or independent living community. Therapy dog owners are usually members of a local therapy dog group, which has tested and certified the human-canine team to make visits to places that have requested them.
This summer, Linda Kunicki started an animal assisted activity program at LaGrange Pointe, an independent living community in downtown La Grange, where she is marketing director. On July 6, members of the Chicagoland Shetland Sheepdog Club showed off their dogs' special skills like dancing and obedience. (The club is not a therapy dog group, but some members are certified therapy dog teams.)
"It was a huge success," Kunicki says. "I'll bet all their cheeks were hurting they were smiling so much."
Talk to any therapy dog volunteer, and it's obvious that they get as much out of it as the people they're visiting.
"It's so rewarding because no matter what facility you go to, whether it's the staff or family members or the cleaning people, everyone smiles. All you have to do is show up," says Brcich. "Almost everybody wants to see and pet your dog, and everybody gets something out of it."
Brcich has two therapy dogs, Gracie, 11, and Joey, 10. They are both Shetland sheepdogs, and show dogs to boot. Her previous therapy dog died at age 17. Brcich volunteers five hours a month in varied locations, from a Ronald McDonald House to a VA hospital to nursing homes even a convent for retired nuns.
"We both get blessed when we go there," Brcich says. "At the convent years ago, one of the nuns would hoard the Lorna Doone cookie packages from lunch (and save them) for the dogs. We started calling her Sister Lorna Doone. The dogs would drag us to her room. Ordinarily I do not have people feed my dog on visits, but this was an exception," she laughs.
For the past nine years the residents at Mather Pavilion in Evanston have had their own canine best friend, Raffi the collie. Activity coordinator Leila Raab started bringing her Lassie look-alike to work with her when he was four months of age. He received special training to interact appropriately with the residents, whose average age is 90.
Exactly how do they interact? "They greet him first. They say, 'Where's Raffi?' They stretch out, trying to reach him. Some pet the nines out of him. They call his name a lot. They give him treats. They love him and they look for him all day," she says.
A dog is great for those in memory care, Raab adds.
"Having a dog in the place pulls that total recall," she says. "Raffi has reminded many people about dogs they had. There is one resident who thinks he is his former dog and tries to buy him from me. They'll tell you repetitively about their dogs, or that they've always loved dogs. It just flows."
Raab says initially there were barriers to having a canine visitor. People were not sure about having an animal in their sanitary space, had a fear of animals or allergies. But all of that disappeared when Raffi came along, she says.
Many therapy dog owners will verify that their dog does indeed have a special something that goes beyond mere training.
Once Raffi was called into a hospice case at the family's request. "I did not think the dying person was even aware at that point, but he went in and lay down by her," Raab says. "Her hand was hanging by the bedside, and he nudged it with his nose. He stayed there all day without being told. I had to put the leash on to get him home.
Later on, she died. He has never done anything like that before or since."
Think your pooch might make a good therapy dog? Would the residents of your community like to have a therapy dog visit? To find a local therapy dog group, contact organizations such as Therapy Dogs, Inc. (therapydogs.com) or Delta Society (deltasociety.org).
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