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Georgia Mountain Laurel Magazine

Therapy Dogs International: Love on Four Paws

Mar 24, 2016 11:37AM ● By Ryan Frisch

What do you think when someone tells you they have a relative confined to a hospital or nursing home suffering an illness, serious injury, accident—or worse? Or a child held captive within an emotional cocoon? You’re sympathetic, concerned. You enjoy your health; freedom to come and go at will and the comfort of being with people you love every day. Communication is not a problem; it’s just a matter of when you have time in your busy schedule.

Can you put yourself in the place of a person who’s been pretty much confined to a bed or wheel chair for weeks, or months? A child fearful of human interaction? Whose most frequent human contacts are nurses, attendants, physicians or other health care professionals? Kind and caring as they may be; they’re not family-- not your life-long friend-- and they have a job to do.

Imagine the loneliness, the anxiety or depression, not being able to just tell someone your fears or worries. Suppose you felt you had to put on a good face and not upset anyone? Or you were invited to talk, but didn’t even know what those words would be? You long for some reassurance, comfort, peace of mind, a bit of joy.

And then one long, tedious day, you hear voices new to you, the soft padding of feet. They come closer. So close you can reach and touch the silky black ears, the strong, smooth head of a wonderful big dog. His big brown eyes know you and all he wants to do is be close to you. He wants to be touched, wants to be your friend. He offers immediate comfort, strength and support. Imagine, in a few moments a bond is formed that needs no voice, which holds no judgment and asks only to be treated with kindness and respect. Which is fine, as that is your need also.

On one particular afternoon at the Mountain View Nursing Center this past January two dogs have lent grace and renewed friendships with their resident friends whom they visit often. They know them by name and some call out as one or the other becomes visible in the doorway. A cuddle on several laps, accompanied by doggie kisses is a prescription no physician can fill. A rigorous petting of the larger canine is satisfying to other residents from their wheelchairs or beds. One woman remarks, joking (but not really): “Are you sure you don’t want to leave her here with me?” From another: “I could get by like this.”

These folks are just a sampling of the many, and lasting friends of Michael, a gentle yet strong Belgian sheep dog and Suzy, a sweet-natured Shih-Poo. (Shih-Tzu poodle mix). Both are proud members of Therapy Dogs International, Rabun County Chapter. Michael lives with Christopher and Nannette Curran who have gone through the rigorous training with him required for certification and are ten years into the program. Suzy is just as happy to kiss a face as to sit in a lap and is also a great favorite when visiting health care facilities with her certified trainers Sally and Larry Anderson. 

Coincidentally (or not?), Sally and Suzy found each other around the same time. Sally recalls her sadness after having lost her cherished Boston Terrier after twelve years of companionship. Glancing through Facebook on the Internet, she learned that the little dog (yet to be named) needed a home. Becky Roper, an Atlanta TDI member, convinced Sally to take the training and six months later, they were both certified and ready to go into action. After one and a half years ‘on the job’, therapy visits to Mountain Lakes Medical Center (local hospital), Traces of Tiger, Cannonwood (assisted living), Mountain View and even hospice facilities are taken in stride.

Another TDI team, Dave Jensen and his mixed Lab, Andy, have visited Traces of Tiger, the Rabun County Library and the Rabun elementary school. It was this last location where Andy was able to motivate a child to go from not liking to read and being two grades behind her grade level, to moving up an entire grade and reading more than 20 books in about three months. Dave recalls: “When she met Andy and we started to leave after a visit, the third grader asked if Andy could come back to see her again.  I replied that Andy could come but he likes to be read to, so she went straight to the principal and asked if she could go to the library and pick out some books.  The principal told me later that was the first interest in reading she had shown.”

Reading out loud to Andy was the trick. Andy probably knows something about listening the rest of us may have missed.

How do the other certified owners/trainers feel about the interactive visits that are at the core of this volunteer organization?

Christopher learned early on that, “It was one thing to go through the training, take the test and quite another to go and do it!” He would like to eventually work with children who have to testify in court and to train new TDI prospective teams. Christopher notes that some clients initially want nothing to do with the dog therapy process; then when it’s least expected, “They’ll want to get close to Michael and pet him.” He feels good about the job they do, but is “usually worried about protecting” the dogs in the event of over-enthusiasm or unintended rough handling.

Nannette finds it “very gratifying” to be able to furnish “the brightest spot in someone’s day. I like to think we make a difference to be there on a regular basis.” 

Sally is sure that “Suzy and I are a team. The places we’ve been to, we know people and have created friendships. It’s more than just a dog sitting in a person’s lap,” she asserts, and explains that it’s about making connections and becoming attached. Larry jokes (but we know there’s more to it) when he quips, “I have friends tell me that when they die they want to come back as my dog!” 

The Andersons, Currans and Dave didn’t need to see the scientific research to confirm what they’ve known for ages: contact between humans and dogs benefits both species in very special ways.

The Rabun County Chapter of TDI was officially chartered in 2014, with the first meeting held at the Curran’s home with Michael (whom we’ve met) and his more vocal canine mom Grace.  This chapter was formed subsequent to Becky Roper and Brenda Nash training dogs and their owners for the TDI qualifying test.  It serves Northeast Georgia and Southwest North Carolina.

TDI is a volunteer, non-profit organization, founded in New Jersey in 1976, open to all breeds of dogs and dedicated to “regulating, testing and registering” therapy dogs and their handlers. The human/canine teams are required to be tested and evaluated by a Certified TDI Evaluator. The dogs must be at least one year of age and have a “sound, calm temperament”. Additionally the TDI dogs must have an ongoing updated health record verified by a licensed veterinarian.

Training the dogs is not too different from obedience school, Nannette and Christopher explain. The dogs need to be able “to interact with different people in different kinds of settings and under different circumstances; to see how they behave or react.” They have to walk alongside you without being distracted by other activity or by, for instance, a person putting down food that could tempt them.” Sally adds, “They can’t be too shy or too aggressive.”

Beyond those mentioned, typical TDI sites may include: home visits, hospice, children’s’ hospitals, shelters, libraries and “wherever else therapy dogs are needed”.

By Jo Mitchell

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