Pet Therapy – a special bond

The old, gray, black and white dog lay sleeping in the blueberry bushes at the top of Cadillac Mountain. She, at 11 1/2, had just finished hiking a steep, arduous trail that extended over a mile. No one pushed her; she did it because she loved Acadia National Park and its many hikes. Now, she enjoyed a well-deserved rest. Slowly her head raised and she creaked to her feet. With a dignity that comes only with age, the ancient one walked across a stone walkway near the ranger’s shop that greeted both hikers and those who decided to drive to the summit. Retired for years but past work not forgotten, the old dog sat in front of a child. The young person’s face lit up and unintelligible sounds of joy echo to her parents. The child is severely handicapped. It was the sound of her special chair’s wheels that roused the old Sheltie from her slumber in the warm sun on her bed of blueberry bushes. Muffin was a Therapy Dog for six years as well as my best friend. Though she had not seen the inside of a nursing home or rehabilitation facility for three years, she would still seek out those who needed her most – regardless of how she was feeling. The little girl’s mother’s eyes glistened as I explained why Muffin had stopped the chair. For one moment, the child had no disability that mattered. She could sit and cuddle something that would respond back with gentleness and not stares.

Until the day Muffin told me she had enough of this plane, she would reach out to those in need: an elderly gentleman paralyzed by stroke; a new resident having a difficult time adjusting to a new “home”; and old Scots woman who relived stories of her youth and the Border Collies her father trained; a litter of kittens too young for adoption, still in need of a mother’s care. Muffin was never formally trained for this work. To her, it came as naturally as shedding. Rather, it was I who received the lesson: unconditional acceptance of those who life dealt a different hand than most of us. The lesson that someday we too may desire a person to bring in a cuddly dog, cat, rabbit or even a llama just for a few minutes of sunshine in an institutional world. When age related problems forced her retirement, I was finally old enough to realize what Muffin did for others. I missed our work

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“Is this the visiting dog?” The distraught, younger man asked poking his head out of a door.

“Yes, he is.”

“My father is new here, could you bring in the dog? I think Dad may like a visit.”

“Of course!”

Ryker confidently trotted in the room and to the only occupied bed. A frail gentleman laid stiff, tubes from every conceivable direction. The little red-sable and white Sheltie stood at the foot of the bed and waited for instruction. The son nodded.

“OK boy, HOP-UP!” The lithe dog bounded gently to the foot of the bed, dropped to his belly and slowly inched until he was snuggled against the man’s side.

“Dad is pretty much comatose and will not respond.” But the old man did. His body visibly relaxed and a hand came out. Fingers entwined in the deep, white ruff of the dog.

Suddenly the man stiffened. His body jerked in the throes of a grand mal seizure.

“OH MY GOD!” The son cried. “I forgot to tell you dad seizures frequently.”

My heart raced. Ryker  was not as stable a working dog as Muffin had been. Though he handled nursing home visitations well, if something disturbed him, Ryker would shut down and refuse to go on. But the man was flailing too violently for me to remove my boy. Miraculously, Ryker knew what to do. He dropped flat on the bed, waited until the seizure passed and then attempted to comfort the old man. By now, the son was openly crying. I was in awe. Normally something like this would have set Ryker off kilter and visiting would have been over for the day. But Ryker continued on that day as if everything had been routine.

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When I used to talk about Pet Therapy to my coworkers, they thought I’d put FiFi on a tiny couch and delve into her most inner, canine fantasies. When they thought of Therapy animals, the image of a blind person with steadfast guide dog leading the way came to mind. They had no idea that there is a whole world of animals (dogs mainly) and people who give of their time each week or month to visit those spending their time in institutions. This is how I spent several hours each month with a beloved friend: sharing of our time and love.

I got into Pet Therapy at the age of thirteen as a Confirmation class challenge. The minister wanted the class to do community service both as a group and as individuals. We needed to perform three hours or so each task. As a group, it was decided that we would host a canned goods drive and then serve a meal at a soup kitchen. When it came time for our individual challenge, everyone decided to serve another meal; however, this time they held no benefit whatsoever to raise money or food for the soup kitchen. I felt they were missing the point of the challenge and decided to branch off on my own. I had heard of Pet Therapy and a couple years earlier some members of my 4-H club had taken our rabbits and guinea pigs to a local nursing home. I recruited my sister (then 11) and her dog for my challenge. I spent the following week giving proposals to several nursing homes and rehabilitation centers for both adults and children. Within days, we had three positive responses. What started out to be a three-hour volunteer challenge became, for Muffin and me, a six-year adventure. It ended in 1988 when became employed at a nursing home I was working at the summer between high school and college.

Muffin was now eight and getting set for retirement. She was developing arthritis. Yet there was one last task for her to do. Muffin would finally become a staff member at a facility. The charge nurse had always wanted to have a “Home Dog” but could not get her puppy trained well enough to trust. I offered to show her what an experienced dog could do. Within minutes, Muffin was on staff. For the next three months, we worked side by side at the end of each week when Muffin’s day on came around.

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Not every dog is cut out for Pet Therapy work. The dog must be well socialized, handle all sorts of sounds, smells and sights with grace and calmness. Should a resident, be it adult or child, be having an off day and decide to twist an ear or should a wheel chair accidentally bump your partner, the dog must not panic or nip. No matter how carefully you screen residents, accidents may happen as well as scary incidents. The sounds of monitors and scents of urine and fecal matter can set some dogs off. Others cannot handle working around wheel chairs, walkers or crutches.

Now you have a dog you think is up to the task. You have found a group to work with and your dog has passed their specific guidelines for work (or such a test as the Therapy Dogs International screening, some of your local kennel clubs periodically host screenings), are YOU ready? As much as Pet Therapy gives you the warm fuzzies and the residents a wonderful treat, it can also cause burn out. People tend to try and visit everyone, which can take hours. Most dogs are good for up to an hour. Some dogs, like Muffin, were created to work for hours, but this is not the norm.

With the aid of the recreation director in the facility, create a list of residents or patients who would benefit and spend about five to ten minutes with each. Try to go weekly or every other week so you can create a bond. Bring easy to eat treats and make certain your dog will not snap food from hands. Make the visits fun and should puppy look stressed, end for the day.

Now look at your own burn out level. This can be depressing work. You want to get involved and very close but must also distance yourself.

The loss of a beloved resident can hit hard for both you and the dog. I remember when Ryker’s favorite person, “John” started having trouble.

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John originally did not want to live. Emphysema had left him wheelchair bound and on oxygen. The nurses said he was praying to die. Ryker brought a new spark into John’s life. Suddenly, he began talking about his dachshund he had for years. John gained weight and began to look forward to our visits – every other Saturday at 3. He began to contact friends on the outside and occasionally do lunch when the staff said he was well enough for a day pass out. Ryker bonded with John from our first day. Then John developed a serious lung infection. In and out of the hospital and ICU then back to the home and on respirators – this became John’s new life. Even when John was back in his old room, he never recovered. I remember him saying at our first visit “Why can’t they let me die?” After a few weeks of visiting, he changed to “Maybe one more year so I can love this dog.”

One afternoon, Ryker and I approached John’s door. “Hi! Ryker’s here!” I called. John responded he did not want to visit that day. I held his hand and said we would see him in two weeks. The following meeting, John was not in his room. I asked the orderly if he had been moved again. John’s room changed frequently based on his breathing and how close he needed to be to the nurses’ station. John had passed the Saturday before, at 3pm. The time Ryker and I normally visited. But it was our off week. This was not the first time I had a resident refuse a visit normally relished then die within days after. But John hit me the hardest. The only thing he lived for was Ryker. His family, who lived closer than we did, visited rarely. We had become his family.

Ryker and I continued to visit for another year and a half. It was not the same. I was burning out. Ryker tried each week to enter John’s old room, the one he had our first day. But no one was there. Ryker’s tail hung low as we left the wing. It was time to let someone else take over. Another group had started coming to the home, my husband was considering a move to Virginia, and so it was time to break away.

Someday, I would like to get back to Pet Therapy work. Motherhood, more responsibilities and volunteering with Guiding Eyes for the Blind are taking up my days. Ryker is now seven. By the time Connor is old enough to understand and possibly bring with me, my Sheltie boy will be just about set to retire. As for Hunter, my other dog, he just never settled down enough to become a Therapy Dog. Hunter is a wonderful beast and loves to work in other fields, but just is too much for Therapy work. For now, I will remember my years fondly, cry when I think of Muffin and watch in awe as Ryker now seeks out the disabled and elderly but will let no one else touch him willingly. They know who needs them.

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This was written many years ago.  I forget how long but it has to be over a decade now.  I am looking at the possibility of another Therapy dog – a dorky adolescent Standard Schnauzer that my daughter has.  I see my son working on a school project about how animals and technology can be used to assist Autistic children.  My son is on the spectrum and has learned to own it.    My daughter is becoming the dog person of the two.

My old dogs are now past, as are the two dogs I based The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project on.  Time goes on and we continue to go forward.

Pet therapy is a special bond and takes special dogs.  I have been blessed to be able to have this in my life.

Muffin - Acadia

Dedicated to “Muffin” Chanty’s Blue Willow, CD, CGC and my first Therapy Dog… July 1980 – February 1996

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