by Cel Hope
an article I wrote in 2002 in response to a request by the German Shepherd Dog Club of America
The woman was no longer able to receive her visitors while sitting in her wheelchair. Although obviously weaker than on our last visit, she was still excited to see her one of her favorite friends–a German Shepherd named Pepper. Patting the coverlet, in a whisper she asked if Pepper could come up on her bed. I looked inquiringly at the aide and received immediate permission to bend the rules. Pepper seemed intuitively to understand what was requested of her and carefully, gently, climbed onto the bed, stretched her body alongside the woman’s, and rested her head against a bony shoulder. The dying woman stroked her over and over, whispering endearments, “Pepper, I love you. Pepper, you’re such a good girl. Pepper, Pepper, my friend…” The aide and I, tears streaming down our cheeks, could have been a million miles away as far as the two of them were concerned. Finally, after about 20 minutes, the woman fell into a peaceful sleep and Pepper looked around for me, signaled her job was done, and allowed herself to be helped off the bed. The woman died that night.
In another room on another hall, a young man wearing a helmet to protect the large hole in his head, held out his hand for the treats he knew I carried. Pepper, tail wagging, sat expectantly in front of him. The two went through their favorite tricks: “Catch It. Speak! Shake Hands. Speak! Platz. Speak! Sit. Speak!” (Jack really liked to make her bark). Other residents gathered in the doorway, laughing as usual at their antics.
Still later, in the Alzheimer’s Unit, we’re accosted by a woman who talks excitedly about Pet Therapy. She tells me how much the residents enjoy visiting with her pet rats, and while I’m smilingly concealing my revulsion (“Rats! Do people really want to see rats?”), I become aware that Pepper, sitting in heel position, has suddenly shifted into hunt mode. From what I had thought was a purse dangling from the woman’s arm, the head and whiskers of a very large albino rat were emerging! Thankful that I had brought my old obedient dog rather than one of my inexperienced adolescents, I continued listening to the woman’s stories. She, for her part, was totally oblivious to Pepper’s high alert state as she quivered by my side, ears rigidly perked, predator eyes targeted on prey. As I smiled and nodded to the woman’s interminable stories, I whispered commands out of the side of my mouth, “Pepper, stay….. Pepper, LEAVE IT!…” Finally the woman picked up her rat (“Pepper, STAY!”), perched it on her shoulder (“Pepper, LEAVE IT!”), and sauntered, still talking, towards the exit (Good Pepper! Good leave it! What a great girl you are!”). As soon as she was gone, I leaned weakly against the wall and tossed treats to my dog as the aides laughed and laughed and laughed.
More and more scientific research is verifying what animal lovers have known for centuries: we need animals. Without contact with other living beings, we humans dwindle until we exist rather than live. Unfortunately, more and more people are forced to live without contact with nature and her creatures. Nursing homes, hospitals and institutions may meet the physical needs of people but they can sure kill the spirit of the people who must live there for any length of time.
Therapy Dogs (and other animals) nurture the spirits of people in a variety of situations. They lift spirits in children’s hospitals, cancer treatment centers and other large long-term treatment facilities in metropolitan areas. They are used at disaster scenes to comfort rescue personnel and worried family members. Pet Therapy provides an injection of normalcy, an opening of those institutional walls to admit the life that pulsates so vigorously outside the walls.
In my quiet, rural area in Wyoming, I visit an assisted living facility and a senior daycare. I have been called to the homeless shelter when families with small children had sought refuge and to the nursing home section of the VA Hospital. One summer I helped with a summer program for troubled elementary school students.
Nursing homes are usually a person’s last residence before the grave, and the mentally-alert residents know that all too well. Activity Directors schedule constant diversions, but the most effective stimulation comes when animals or human babies arrive. Then doors open and residents move out into the hall to interact with the very welcome visitors. Long after the visitors have gone, residents will remain to talk with each other share memories and chuckle over the visitors’ antics. Slowly, animation fades, they fall silent and go back into their tiny rooms, returning to that semi-life which is their normal state.
I make most of my Therapy Dog visits to the two local nursing homes because the most abject loneliness and hopelessness are found there. All five of my adult GSD’s are Therapy Dogs and take turns making scheduled visits–one Wednesday we visit one nursing home; the next Wednesday we visit the other. The residents know each dog’s name and history. Glory, for instance, likes to sit in chairs and will climb up into the visitor’s chair in each room, bringing chuckles as I try to move the chair by the bed or wheelchair before she climbs up. She’ll even give a “come hither” look when no one is noticing her, leaning her head back and looking piercingly at people to get their attention.
She also enjoys riding in a wheelchair so sometimes I commandeer one and “drive” her from room to room. She sits regally in the chair and waits for people to exclaim with surprise and come pet her and make over her. She seems to enjoy being on the same level with those in wheelchairs, and it sure makes it easier for them and for people in beds to reach her. That brain is probably not considering the benefit to the residents as much as it is figuring if she will get more treats being “cute”.
She revels in being a “bad dog”, deliberately breaking rules and making sure I notice that she did so. The fact the she sits perkily beside me, obviously making it obvious that she is choosing to be good at least for the moment, helps residents enjoy her escapades even more. She has provided lots of cheering stories over the years.
The residents often refer to a story I told about a particular dog on a previous visit. Droll, who “spoke no English” when he arrived from Germany, has been another favorite. One nursing home resident, a German native, still spoke the language fluently, so as soon as the staff learned that Droll was from Germany, they hastened to introduce the two. She would croon to Droll in German as he leaned against her wheelchair and listened intently. News of their common bond spread through the nursing home, and soon residents would meet us at the door, tell us where Droll’s special friend was, conduct us there and stay to enjoy the “conversation” between the two Germans. That lady died 2 years ago and Droll now “speaks” English quite well, but residents still occasionally ask if Droll misses his German conversations. We’ll have quite a talk about moving to new places as they stroke his big head and gleaming fur.
Pepper, in her last years, had arthritis in a front foot and limped slightly. The residents closely followed her treatments, monitored her condition (“She’s worse, today, isn’t she?”), and compared her arthritis medications with theirs. It was very okay with them that their Therapy Dog suffered the same old-age ills that they did.
How important the animal visits are is sometimes shown to me in a humbling way. Occasionally, as part of my job, I’m asked to conduct a visiting priest on a visit to the nursing homes. As we walk down the halls, I’ll greet those residents I know from regular Therapy Dog visits, only to be met by blank looks. They don’t recognize me without a dog! I’m just the “prop” who brings the star, only the chauffeur!
Therapy Dogs can be used in two major ways: social interaction such as I do (called “Animal Assisted Activities”), and as an actual part of a structured program of physical therapy, directed by a physical therapist (called “Animal Assisted Therapy”). In AAT, the therapist plans and supervises a patient’s interaction with the dog in order to re-teach or enhance the ability to use certain muscles, to improve coordination, or to encourage confidence. Patients may be asked to brush the dog, walk it, or perform other tasks. Often the use of an animal will “tame” an otherwise uncooperative patient or encourage an already cooperative one.
Therapy Dogs should be affiliated with a therapy group. Membership in a therapy group provides screening and certification of candidates, education, support and liability insurance. The insurance protects the volunteer in case someone you visit would be accidentally injured by you or your dog. I had the first Therapy Dog in Wyoming back in 1981. I read an article about Therapy Dogs in a magazine, thought it would be a perfect activity for my male GSD, Shalako, called the nursing home, and was enthusiastically invited to visit as often as I could. Life is more complicated today; people are liable to sue over incidents where no negligence was present, so liability insurance is welcome and important. Many institutions, also concerned about liability, require that a Therapy Dog team be certified and insured before they can visit.
The procedures for screening and certifying potential TD candidates vary between therapy groups, but all tests are designed to eliminate dogs which are unhealthy, untrained, and of unsound temperament–traits which could endanger the weak and ill people which Therapy Dogs visit. Many therapy groups require a Canine Good Citizen certification as part of their screening process. I’m a tester/observer for Alliance for Therapy Dogs, which doesn’t require the CGC but which uses a similar test of its own devising.
The dog and handler are certified as a team. A person can certify more than one dog, but must be tested separately with each one, and may only take one dog on a Therapy Dog visit.
Before beginning the screening process, the tester/observer must see proof of vaccination. The initial screening evaluates the dog’s basic temperament, its level of training, and the owner’s ability to both correct any misbehavior and praise good behavior. The handler’s neatness and cleanliness, and the dog’s state of grooming are also evaluated.
The dog must enjoy interacting with strangers. Breed character is definitely taken into account on this. German Shepherds will never be as ecstatic about being petted as say a Golden Retriever or Lab, but they need not be. If they’re pleasant and calm and accept being petted, their innate seriousness about work will make them successful Therapy Dogs. They will set about taking care of their “flock” of residents and soon develop friendships with those they see regularly. Pepper was so serious about her friends that I never took her when several teams visited as a group. She did not like sharing her friends with other dogs. If she could not genteelly maneuver to be the first dog to greet certain favorite residents, she would pout, ears in “airplane” position. For group visits, I’d have to take one of my younger dogs who weren’t as possessive of the “flock”.
If a dog does not like strangers or unfamiliar places or has weak temperament, it won’t make a good Therapy Dog. The dog will hate the work and those he visits will know it. A woman once brought a very shy Borzoi to a screening session. The dog hated the slick floor and refused to walk on it. When approached by anyone, he cowered. When people using a walker and wheelchair (part of the test) moved past him at a distance, he hit the floor and cowered. Yet his owner was furious when I flunked them, saying he would get used to everything. Perhaps he would have, eventually, become able to cope with those easy tests. But how would he have reacted if a group of admiring residents surrounded him, all wanting to pet him at once? Or if someone backed a wheelchair over his tail or pulled his ear? How would he cope with the odors, the noises, the rattling carts and moving machines, and the variety of unsteady gaits and uncoordinated mannerisms of a hundred or more residents? How would he handle the constant plea, “Help me!” from a demented person, or a tight hug from a person glad to see a dog like one they loved years ago? A potential Therapy Dog must have a stable temperament and nerve base that will allow it to think through and accept all these and many other stresses.
Because of the myriad of challenges that meet a Therapy Dog team, the owner as well as the dog is screened. Is he aware of the dog’s signs of stress? Does he act to lessen the stressors or support the dog as it works in spite of the stress? Does she keep the dog under control so that it won’t jump up on a person, whirl and knock someone down, or swat with a paw and tear a resident’s fragile skin? Do she and her dog have a rapport and trust level that will keep the dog confident when the scary and unexpected happens? Is he able to follow directions, to respect the visitation policies of the facilities he’ll be visiting? Is she able to listen to residents’ indications that they would or would not like to see the dogs–perhaps today, perhaps never (there actually are residents who don’t like dogs or don’t like them inside.)
The team is also tested for manners and basic obedience. The dog must be able to walk on a loose lead at normal, slow and fast paces, with turns and stops. It must, also on a loose lead, approach a seated person (I use a healthy person in a wheelchair, never a resident) and a person walking unsteadily (a volunteer using a walker). It is observed around people and around other dogs: did the dog bark at the other dogs, was it interested in the other dogs, did it show any signs of aggression? In both types of interactions the tester/observer must note if the handler was in control, did the handler correct the dog, did the handler praise the dog. The tester/observer also handles the dog: petting the head and body; holding the tail, paws and ears; and scratching the throat. The tester/observer also judges the dog’s and handler’s willingness to participate in the exercises and whether both are clean and well-groomed (we check the dog’s ears, nails, teeth and coat). Other questions include noting, if the dog was initially excited, whether it calmed down and began responding to the handler, and if it ever became unresponsive during the test.
Another unsuccessful team was comprised of a teenage girl and a totally off-the-wall Australian Shepherd. I never did figure out why they even came (the newspaper article hadn’t been that riveting!). The girl stood around looking cute while the dog circled her at top speed at the end of the leash, looking everywhere except at her or any other person. It turned out that the dog was kept strictly outside and had never been taken off the property. I excused that “team” before their individual tests–why waste their time, or mine??
Most teams, however, do quite well. Occasionally I’ll advise a team to first complete an obedience class, or do a thorough grooming, then re-apply. Or, in the case of a young, immature dog, even if it is past the minimum age of one year, I’ll advise waiting a few months until it’s better able to contentedly sit quietly and walk without springs in its feet. Some just aren’t mentally mature enough to be a good Therapy Dog at 1 year of age. Some aren’t ready until they’re 2. Once they mature, though, they’ll pass easily and become great gifts to the lonely. They truly will be able to exemplify Alliance for Therapy Dog’s motto, “Change Tears into Smiles and Help the Forgotten to Laugh”.
If the team passes every aspect of the screening, they then proceed to the final step: three supervised visits to the nursing homes. At each facility, I introduce the team to the activities director and to the residents who welcome dog visits. I acquaint them with rules and protocols. I observe both members of the team as they visit, clarifying the reasons for the rules (knock and ask permission before entering someone’s room so as to respect their privacy, never let the dog precede you out of the room or around the corner in case a resident would be there to be scared or knocked down, and so forth.) I critique handling (can you tell that your dog is stressed by…? How can you relieve its stress? (by asking people to pet it one at a time, by moving up closer to dog, by praising more often so she understands she’s doing what you want…). At the end of the three required visits, when I feel the dog and owner will be a good Therapy Dog team, I sign the test paperwork and give it to the owner. I also give the owner the list of contact persons and phone numbers for all the local facilities. The owner takes the test papers to her vet for his signature verifying the dog’s health, and then sends the paperwork plus the membership fee to the therapy group. (The yearly fee for Alliance for Therapy Dogs is $20). A few weeks later the owner will receive confirmation of membership and some form of official identification to use when making visits. Alliance for Therapy Dog’s identification is a bright red heart tag which proclaims, “I Am a Therapy Dog” and is to be worn at visits. I have a special collar for the heart tag, along with a 4’ lead (short leads give more control of the dog and are standard requirements for Therapy Dogs). My dogs know what we’re about to do when I grab that equipment. Bless, in fact, bounces and sings in the car as soon as she’s sure we’re heading to the nursing home. She sings all the way to the door, tail wagging madly. After a short discussion about being dignified while inside, we proceed more or less sedately (less at first, moreso as we get into the routine of going from door to door) to see how each of our friends is doing.
The hardest thing to evaluate when screening potential Therapy Dog teams is commitment. Sadly, despite my best efforts to be sure people understand the importance of regular visits, most of the people I certify only go a few times–just enough for the residents to get to know them and look forward to their coming. All too often, when I visit, they’ll ask me if such and such a team is going to come back. I can only tell them that I hope so. I can only promise I’ll be back. And I will be, visiting each nursing home twice monthly with my adult dogs, and weekly when I have pups.
The nursing homes and local facilities thoroughly enjoy visits from my puppies, often calling me to see if I have a litter which is old enough to visit. They all say they have “puppy withdrawal” when I have no babies for a while. One day I received a frantic call at work. The activities director at one of the nursing homes was at her wits’ end. They had a big outdoor picnic and reception scheduled for the Alzheimer’s patients and their families–some of whom had driven a great distance to attend. Unfortunately the entire group of residents refused to “party”, would not leave their rooms, and were extremely grumpy. “When they’re like this,” she told me, near tears, “the only things to which they’ll respond are animals or babies. Is there any way possible for you to bring a dog?” “Now?” I asked. “PLEASE,” she answered. Fortunately it was a slow day at the office so I headed home and grabbed 8 week old Ashi and her sister, Ari. As they bounced and wrestled their way through the unit and out to the patio, the Alzheimer’s patients followed. We provided good conversation starters as we moved from family group to family group and then settled down under a shade tree to play with the bag of toys I had brought. By the time the pups were stretched out, dead to the world, the reception was going strong. The director’s heartfelt thanks followed me as I toted my limp puppies home to finish their nap.
I begin taking my litters to visit at 4 weeks of age. That first week, I’ll take mom so that the experience is less stressful. After that first car/crate ride, they’re ready for a good nurse before we enter the facility. Often residents will come out on the lawn or line the windows to watch the pups dine. Then, with mom on leash leading the way, the pups tumble into the facility. I usually recruit friends (teenage girls love to help!) to handle a pup apiece, carrying it around to visit–with frequent trips back to check in with mom and me. Mom, being of course very familiar with the institution, staff and residents, soaks up the admiration and praise, obviously enjoying the fuss made over her pups. Thirty minutes is about all the handling the pups enjoy, so soon we take them outside–accompanied by many residents–and let them romp on the grass. When they crash in an exhausted pile, I load them into the car and take them home. That week I’ll try to visit all 4 local facilities so they get very comfortable traveling and visiting.
The next week I repeat the visits without mom, but still with one-on-one volunteers to help keep track of the busily exploring puppies. We bring toys for them to play with–always a great hit with the residents. I again try to visit all 4 institutions that week. These two weeks are VERY busy ones for me!
From the time the pups are six weeks old until they leave, I take them individually on visits to the nursing homes. I take toys and treats, and they are on leash. In fact, I leash-train them by doing visits–the pups have a reason to walk on leash and the residents look forward to the occasional excitement as a pup balks or bucks or gives a good imitation of a balky mule. They’ll comment that “Pink” is sure noisy, or “Purple” is sure lazier than “Green” was (I call them by the color of their collar). Some residents follow me down the hallways, not wanting to miss a single minute. They enjoy squeaking the squeaky toy or rolling the ball or giving a treat. Puppies are always a big hit!
When I keep a pup, I take her regularly on visits until she’s about 4 months old. After that she’s in the independent stage–doesn’t want to be held or sit in someone’s lap–or be still in any way! Until she’s about a year old (and able to sit still), I’ll only take her for an occasional “walkthrough” so the residents can see how she’s growing. They often ask about her, so the “walkthroughs” let them say hello and admire her, but don’t frustrate her so that she decides she doesn’t like visiting. When she matures, I take her out of town to have another tester/observer certify her, and she joins the rotation with my older dogs.
There is more and more evidence that human beings cannot reach their fullest
potential unless they remain in contact with the natural world through companion
animals, parks, gardens, farms and wilderness. Careful scientific investigation has
documented the benefits of contact with companion animals and nature. For example,
patients with heart disease have a better chance of survival if they have pets; contact
with pets or the sights and sounds of nature lower blood pressure and reduce stress;
older people with pets require fewer doctor visits; and patients who have a view of a
park use less medication and are discharged earlier than patients who don’t.
Investigation of the effects of companion animals and nature on our health
and well-being progressed in parallel with increasing use of animals therapeutically
with a wide variety of patients,, but especially those abandoned by technological
medicine: inmates of facilities for the aged, including those with Alzheimer’s
disease; chronic mental patients; children with autism or cerebral palsy; and patients
with severe injuries requiring long and difficult rehabilitation. All of these people find
themselves shut away from society, and vulnerable to the effects of institutionalization,
which include withdrawal, depression and apathy. The very simple act of permitting
them contact with companion animals and their owners can make a real, positive and
therapeutic difference in their lives.
Aaron Katcher, MD, Associate Professor Emeritus, Oral Medicine and
Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, in a forward to Volunteering with Your Pet:
How to Get Involved with Animal-Assisted Therapy with Any Kind of Pet, by
Mary R. Burch, PhD
For further information:
Volunteering with Your Pet: How to Get Involved with Animal-Assisted Therapy with Any Kind of Pet, by Mary R. Burch, PhD
My Therapy Dog page on my website: www.celhaus.com/therapy.htm
Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD, formerly Therapy Dogs Incorporated): www.therapydogs.com
Delta Society: http://deltasociety.org/petpart/; http://deltasociety.org/dsx103.htm
Therapy Dogs International (TDI): www.tdi-dog.org