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 makes 4-year-old Labradoodle Hunley happy. His tail starts wagging as soon as he arrives at a nursing home or hospital. Once therapy dog Hunley and handler Cyndi Whalen walk through the doors, playtime is over. 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, certified dog-handler therapy dog teams in the United States. Therapy dogs most often visit patients at hospitals or treatment facilities. Often, they 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. Hanson owned therapy dogs and knows firsthand the benefits they bring.

“Therapy dogs are great because they bring so much pleasure to the people they visit,” Hanson said, “Tikken and I primarily visit nursing homes. Almost all of the people there had pets all their lives. Now, they don’t have any with them. When we visit, they just light up.”

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

“Not every dog can do it,” Hanson said. “We ask 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. He 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. He didn’t pass his first test at Green Acres. On July 20, 2008, evaluator Robert Boulier certified him.

“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.”

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

Therapy Dog Visits Bring Comfort & Joy

A family member with Alzheimer’s disease benefited from visits with Hunley while in a nursing home. Visits with Hunley before his certification showed Whalen what the pair needed to work on. Today, the pair visits nursing homes including Westgate Manor, and the Sylvia Ross Home.

They also visit medical facilities including the Eastern Maine Healthcare System Dialysis Clinic on Union Street and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. During a visit to the dialysis center, Whalen said, she often pulls up a chair.

“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. The prep starts with a thorough brushing. Then, a bath to remove as much dander as possible and get his fur looking beautiful.

“It’s amazing,” she said, “He knows pretty much from 8 a.m. that we have our big day planned.”

TDI requires handlers bathe the dog prior to the visit, clip their nails, and brush their teeth before every visit. They make sure the dog is clean and nails are trimmed to avoid scratching anyone. It takes between 2-3 hours to prepare. They must wear tags and a bandana before they can enter.

Therapy dogs like Hunley often visit assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospices, hospitals, libraries, schools, and shelters. Each year, TDI renews the dog’s certification as long as they recieve proof of immunizations.

A therapy dog works only when with the handler it was certified and evaluated with. Many of the portions of the therapy dog test resemble the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. However, the TDI test includes evaluating the dog’s behavior around people, service equipment, the ability to leave food, and ignore other distractions when directed.

“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 and challenging. I’m so glad we do this.”

For More Information

Visit www.tdi-dog.org.

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