Learning new tricks: Therapy dog brings comfort to patients

This article was originally published on April 3, 2010 in the Bangor Daily News

Visiting sick and elderly people is what makes 4-year-old Labradoodle Hunley happy. His tail starts wagging as soon as he arrives at a nursing home or the hospital. But once Hunley and handler Cyndi Whalen walk through the doors, playtime is over, and visiting time begins. For the patients and residents, Hunley and Whalen’s visit is a bright spot in their day.

A therapy dog is a friend in fur
Hunley and Whalen are one of more than 21,000 trained and certified dog-handler therapy dog teams in the United States. Therapy dogs most often visit patients at hospitals or treatment facilities, but often go to schools and homes to provide comfort and stress relief.

According to Don Hanson, co-owner and director of Behavior Counseling and Training and a certified evaluator for Therapy Dogs International for more than 13 years, therapy dogs provide many benefits to the people they visit.

“Therapy dogs are great because they bring so much pleasure to the people they visit,” Hanson said. Hanson has owned therapy dogs as well and knows firsthand the benefits they bring. “Tikken and I [primarily visited] nursing homes. Almost all of the people there had had pets all their lives, and now they don’t have any with them. When we visited, they’d just light up.”

Studies have proved that when a person holds or pets an animal, it can lower blood pressure, release stress and draw a person out of depression or isolation.

“Not every dog can do it,” Hanson said. “We’re asking the dog to ignore some of the things that make it a dog – for instance, leaving food on the ground or ignoring another dog.”

Hunley is one of Maine’s youngest therapy dogs certified through TDI and took his certification test at Tail Waggin Training Center in Levant. Initially, Whalen learned about therapy dogs during a training class at Green Acres Kennel Shop.

“It intrigued me when the staff would talk about therapy dogs,” she said. “He’s just a happy dog, and some of the instructors thought he would be good at it.”

After passing beginner and advanced training at Green Acres, Whalen and Hunley began training for the therapy dog test. His first test was at Green Acres, which he didn’t pass. “One thing he couldn’t do was to see another dog and ignore it,” Whalen said. “We tried again three months later in Levant at Tail Waggin Training Center. July 20, 2008, was the date he was certified by evaluator Robert Boulier.”

TDI is a nonprofit organization established in 1976. Therapy dogs work as volunteers and provide visits for free to facilities interested in animal visits.

Visits bring comfort and joy
A family member with Alzheimer’s disease benefited from visits with Hunley while she was in a nursing home. Visits with Hunley before he was certified showed Whalen what the pair really needed to work on.

Today the pair visits nursing homes including Westgate Manor, the Sylvia Ross Home, and medical facilities including the Eastern Maine Healthcare System Dialysis Clinic on Union Street and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

“Hunley doesn’t enjoy the hospital as much,” Whalen said. “The dialysis clinic and Westgate are his favorite places to go.”

On the day of a scheduled visit, Whalen and Hunley go through the same routine. “It’s amazing,” she said. “He knows pretty much from 8 a.m. that we have our big day planned.”

The prep starts with a thorough brushing, then a bath to remove as much dander as possible and get his fur looking beautiful. “TDI requires that we bathe the dog prior to the visit, clip his nails, and brush his teeth before every visit. It’s to make sure the dog is clean and that nails are trimmed to avoid scratching anyone. It takes between two and three hours to prepare. He must be wearing his tags and his bandana before we can enter.”

Therapy dogs such as Hunley often visit assisted living and nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, libraries, schools and shelters. Each year the dog’s certification is renewed as long as proof of immunizations is sent in to TDI.

A therapy dog is working only when it is with the handler it has been certified and evaluated with. Many of the portions of the therapy dog test are similar to the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test, but the TDI test also includes evaluating the dog’s behavior around people, service equipment, and its ability to leave food and other distractions when directed.

During a visit to the dialysis center, Whalen said, she often pulls up a chair. “A lot of times they want to pet him and talk about their dogs, or about him,” she said. “Some have gotten to know us well. A lot of people like touching him. He has a soft, fuzzy coat. Some even bury their faces in his fur. For us, it’s fun, challenging, and I’m so glad we do this.”

For more information about TDI, visit www.tdi-dog.org.