Pets With A Mission Inc: Tales of Therapy Dogs Part 2
Therapy teams, consisting of a handler and their therapy dog, volunteer hundreds of hours each year visiting hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and libraries. The handler takes their wonderful pet partners to facilities with the intent of the therapy visit being to comfort others, easing their stress, and spreading some joy. While visiting, therapy teams experience many things and the following paragraphs will tell about some of their experiences.
Sophia, a Spaniel-Boxer mix, and her handler visited a nursing home that was new to them. On their first visit, Sophia enjoyed visiting with the people she encountered. The next week they returned to the same facility but this time it was a different experience. Shortly after their visit started, a loud alarm went off. A few people were out in the hall but nobody was moving quickly. The alarm continued sounding for many minutes. Even though it was shrill, annoying, and prohibited normal conversation. The staff and residents seemed to tune out the alarm but that did not work for Sophia and her handler so the team cut their visit short and departed. The next week, they were nearing the end of their visiting time when the alarm sounded again. The team quickly left the facility. A few days later, the handler returned to the facility to discuss the noise situation with the director. He said that long sounding alarms were unusual but he would address it with the staff. A couple weeks later, the team returned to the nursing home. The handler opened the car door so Sophia could get out but this time, she started shaking and would not get out of the car. They went home without going inside the facility. The handler thought about their previous visits and management and staff response to the noise situation. She made the decision that the facility was not a good match for them. She considered their options. The library might be their new therapy place. Turns out that Sophia loved being around the kids and having them read stories to her. She visited the library for many years until her health and age caused her to retire.
The handler had been taking her first therapy dog to a nursing home for several years. Then, she got another dog who had the potential to become a therapy dog. Jenny was a black and red Doberman Pincher – Rottweiler mix. She was a sweet girl that loved all people. She mastered the required obedience skills, passed evaluation, and became a therapy dog. The handler decided to try Jenny at the same nursing home. The handler groomed Jenny and loaded her into the vehicle. Jenny enjoyed the ride. At the facility, Jenny really enjoyed meeting the people. Then, the handler noticed that about twenty minutes into the visit, Jenny became more interested in finding an exit than meeting more people. The handler was experienced and knew that new therapy dogs can become overwhelmed quickly so the first few visits should be short and end on a positive note. They said their goodbyes and departed. The next few visits to the facility went essentially the same way. Jenny enjoyed the attention but after twenty minutes, Jenny was ready to leave so they went home. Finally, the handler figured out that Jenny has an internal timer that was set to twenty minutes. The timer started as soon as Jenny got out of the vehicle. When it reached twenty minutes it was time to go. Since it took longer to groom Jenny and drive to the facility than it did to conduct a Jenny timed therapy visit, the handler decide to retire Jenny, the twenty-minute wonder. Jenny was an example of a people-loving dog who passed the therapy dog evaluation but who was destined to be a stay-at-home dog.
Sometimes therapy visits do not go as expected. Peanut, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, and her handler had been visiting the same nursing home regularly for several years. One day they came for a therapy visit and a nurse said they could skip a particular room since the woman in there was non-responsive. The team visited several people on the hallway. The next room was where the non-responsive woman resided. The handler knew that sometimes animals can connect with a person when other people cannot so she decided to give it a try. She stood at the door and asked the woman if she wanted a visit but there was no response. Then the handler and Peanut took a few steps into the room but at least six feet away from the bed where the woman was sitting. Still no response. The team turned to leave but stopped at the doorway. Maybe intuition or fate kicked in but the handler turned and addressed the woman in Spanish rather than English. That got a response. The woman knew Spanish. The handler passed that information on to facility staff. The team did not see that woman on future visits so they do not know the outcome of the woman’s situation. It may not have been an ordinary visit, but briefly there was a positive connection with that individual.
Therapy dogs and their handlers do amazing volunteer work. The special dogs connect with people and ease their stress. But not all therapy visits go as expected and not every facility is a good fit for a specific team. Therefore, both the dog and the handler need to be flexible and be able to adapt quickly to what they encounter. But above all, the handler must put the dog’s welfare above all else even if that means changing to a different facility or retiring their dog. At the end of the day, the animals are much loved family members and we want them to be comfortable and happy.