A therapy dog might be the neighbor’s pet, but with an added special purpose. Not to be confused with a service dog—those animals trained for specialized assistance—the therapy dog’s job is to help people smile, or relax, or simply feel good. They visit children in schools and libraries, and they see residents or patients in senior homes and health care facilities. Everywhere, they bring their unique gifts. Dogs are good at sharing friendliness and joy. Sometimes they’re entertaining and often funny. As for understanding, just look at those proverbial soulful eyes.The dogs can’t take sole credit for delivering all these good feelings. Every therapy dog has an owner/handler, and together they form the team that is the basis of the therapy dog program.
Owners become part of this program for a few related reasons. It’s another way to volunteer, to help others, to give back to the community. It’s a way to share the companionship of their favorite best friend, whether the dog is a classic purebred or a rescued mix.
“She really started it,” said Cookie Atkinson, nodding to her beautiful German Shepherd, Chamrock. “I’d taken her to the Gloucester Kennel Club for some training classes, and one of the instructors said she’d be a good candidate for this program. She already had the even temperament. She’s friendly with people and patient with other dogs. Perhaps most important, she listens well. I hadn’t heard about the therapy dog program before, but it sounded like something I’d like to do. With retirement, I had the time to do it.”
Together, Cookie and Chamrock went through the certification and application process that enabled them to join Therapy Dogs International (TDI). With membership, Chamrock wears the signature badge of the organization.
“I’ve found that I really like visiting the people at the assisted-living homes,” said Cookie. “With Chamrock, I can bring a little cheer to someone’s day. At schools and libraries, helping kids to read better is an obvious benefit.”
In one recent morning, the team made three stops in Gloucester. First, the Cancer Center at Riverside; then Gloucester House, a senior facility; and finally Bay Aging’s Day Break, which provides adult day health services.
Patients aren’t the only ones to enjoy a therapy dog’s visit. The nurses at the Cancer Center are noticeably fond of Chamrock. One nurse commented that the dog’s visits are especially welcomed because they fit into the goal of treating the whole patient, not only the cancer.
Though not always the center of attention, Chamrock is always visible and accessible. At each place, she greets those she knows and meets new people. She moves from one to another to say hello. At Day Break, she took time out to demonstrate how well-trained and smart she is by showing off with a series of obedience exercises. Good girl!
During school and library visits, therapy dogs listen while children read to them. Strange as that may sound, it can help a child overcome shyness or a reluctance to read aloud. The dogs have a calming effect, and teachers and librarians see steady improvement in reading abilities as a result of these visits.
Cindi Saleski heads the therapy dog program in Lancaster County. “In addition to scheduled visits, the group also does special presentations. We did one at the junior high to show different ways people can interact with their pets, and we brought a number of the therapy dogs. A representative from the sheriff’s department also spoke about responsible pet ownership.” Cindi has two therapy dogs, a Papillon and a Tibetan Mastiff.
Though every day is different, therapy dog visits are equal parts attention-getters for the dogs and get-togethers for the owner/handlers, all of whom are cheerful and outgoing, with a knack for finding common interests with the people they see. Walking the hallways at each place, the therapy team looks first for familiar faces. If a door is open, the team enters quietly, and the handler checks to see if the occupant is awake and wants to see the dog. A positive response from the resident or patient brings the dog near, anticipating a welcoming pet. At other times, the dog may simply lie down close to the chair or bed, visible but not disruptive. Some residents are enthusiastic dog lovers and start their own conversations with the dogs, and one-sided though these may be, there is communication. Lots of visiting, lots of sharing, lots of smiling (dogs included), as patients and residents recall their own pets’ personalities and antics.
At a weekly visit to Rappahannock Westminster Canterbury on the Northern Neck, Marlene Bott brought Sookie and Skye, a charming mother/daughter pair of Portuguese Water Dogs. Maryann Goodall came with her “pocket beagle” Delilah. Small, cute, and cuddly, “Lila” might even be invited onto a bed, since she can’t reach high enough to put her front paws up on the bed—or to rest her chin there—like the larger dogs may do. Earlier in the day, the sweet little dog had demonstrated her own reading ability, following commands that were not spoken, but rather spelled out on separate cards held by her owner so the dog could read them: Sit, Down, and Up, all three followed on cue. Lila is not only a therapy dog, she’s also certified for a separate category that focuses on disaster stress relief.
The teams visited a man who pointed out a photo book of his “grand-dog.” The wall in another resident’s room was decorated with pastel sketches of his dogs. Probably the highlight of the day included an impromptu concert. One of the residents, an accomplished musician, began to play a harmonica. The two Portuguese Water Dogs were immediately curious, sitting at attention and tilting their heads often as they stared at the source of the sound. Finally, their composure lost, both aimed their noses high and began to howl—in tune with the music, no doubt. Sookie and Skye share their home with two cats, another clue to the disposition of therapy dogs.
“I’ve been involved with the therapy dog program for many years,” said Maryann Goodall, “and I get so much satisfaction from visiting people in nursing homes. Still, we try to establish a limit to the visiting time. Therapy dogs may work for a while, then stop for a while,” she added. “It is tiring for the dogs, and it can be stressful. Cindi Saleski has two dogs, and she alternates their visits so neither gets overtired.”
Helen Noles learned about therapy dogs years ago while teaching in Hampton. “I trained a dog and did therapy visits on weekends and evenings. After a time, friends noted that the bossy teacher in me was always coming out, and they suggested I become an evaluator [a person who tests and certifies dogs for the therapy dog program]. So I submitted an application to TDI and was accepted. I’ve been doing it since the ‘90s, and I love it. It combines the teacher in me with my interest in dogs. During the school year, we do five visits a week.”
Applying for membership in TDI can seem a long process, but it’s necessary to ensure that dog and handler function well as a team. The dogs are expected to be obedient, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and always gentle. Handlers must be aware of the dog’s attitude and activity at all times. There’s no requirement for dogs to attend special training classes before applying for therapy dog status, but such classes are a good way to expose dogs to other people and other animals. Dog owners interested in the therapy dog program can contact one of the individuals listed at the end of the article, or see the “How to Join” section of the Therapy Dogs International website: tdi-dog,org.
As part of the evaluation process, the dogs are tested and observed in many situations, which include loud noises, unexpected sights (a wheelchair, walker, or cane), children running or shouting, and more. Naturally, the dogs must be well-groomed with all health records up-to-date.
TDI membership provides assurance to the schools, health care facilities, and nursing homes that the therapy dogs have been well-trained and tested. The organization provides insurance to the owner/handlers during the times when they visit the various facilities. The handlers, all volunteers, share the companionship of their special friend, and the dogs appear happy to take part. Altogether, it’s a winning combination. For information in Lancaster County, call Cindi Saleski, 804-438-5167, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. In Gloucester, Helen Noles, email email@example.com or go to the Therapy Dogs International (TDI) website: tdi-dog.org. Other dog therapy organizations exist, with the majority of them limited by geographic area. TDI is the oldest and largest.