Even if you have great human relationships, there’s something very
special about the unconditional love and acceptance you feel from your pet.
If you’re a pet owner, you already understand the benefits we get
from positive interactions with animals. Now, a growing body of research
is recognizing the impact the human-animal bond can have on individual
and community health.
We’re not sure why exactly, but we do know the benefits are there.
Whether pet ownership simply motivates us to exercise, offers an antidote
for loneliness, or just gives us loving companions to care for, a strong
human-animal bond positively influences our health and well-being.
This is one reason FMH works with Wags for Hope to offer a Therapy Dog
program to its patients, families and staff.
Wags for Hope is a local organization of pet-owners who want to bring joy
into the lives of others by sharing their pets. After careful evaluation
and training, these teams are ready to visit hospitals, nursing homes,
assisted living facilities, hospices, retirement homes, schools, libraries—even
disaster shelters—to provide that non-judgmental, no-strings-attached
affection to people who need it most.
“Since the hospital environment can be a demanding one, our therapy
dogs are all trained at the highest level,” says Dolly Sullivan,
Director of Service Excellence at FMH. “They also adhere to strict
criteria involving immunizations and grooming. For example, every therapy
dog must be bathed within 24 hours prior to coming in to visit.”
Many Paws Make Light Work
Laura Schwartz and Trish Crum, co-presidents of Wags for Hope, contribute
hundreds of hours a year managing the busy organization and remain active
in many Wags of Hope initiatives, including the FMH Therapy Dog program.
Volunteers David Greiger and 11-year-old Toby visit the hospital regularly.
When an injury disqualified Toby from the seeing-eye dog training program,
Greiger and his wife eagerly adopted him. After a new type of training,
Toby embraced his new role as a therapy dog wholeheartedly. Known affectionately
as “Team Toby,” the two have been visiting patients and families
at FMH for more than four years.
Nurse Sylvia Nye is continuing to care for patients in retirement with
the help of her long-haired chihuahua, Ginger Snap. “Ginger has
a great temperament,” says Sylvia. “We’ve never left
a patient’s room without getting a smile from someone.” Though
a lot bigger and heftier than Ginger, Rico the German Shepherd and Onyx
the Rottweiler, handled by their owner Kristi Wood, are just as gentle-natured.
Dolly Sullivan’s own dog, Bentley is one of the Wags for Hope-certified
therapy dogs that visits FMH regularly. According to Sullivan, the 6-year-old
mix of a Golden Retriever and a Standard Poodle, was a natural therapy
dog from the beginning.
Born Not Made
Dolly grew up on a dairy farm with lots of dogs and she’s never had
a dog quite like Bentley. She’s taught him basic commands, but it’s
his temperament, she says, that’s most extraordinary. “He
has this innate intuition for providing affection and comfort to people
who need it most,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything
like it. You can’t teach that.”
Dolly first learned about Wags for Hope when her children participated
in a R.E.A.D. program sponsored by the organization at a summer camp.
“This program places children with a therapy dog to practice reading
aloud,” explains Wags of Hope’s co-president Laura Schwartz.
“Reluctant or shy readers really enjoy reading to the dogs, who
truly seem to “listen” carefully and never judge or correct.
Kids love it, but more importantly, their reading skills improve.”
Sensing a great opportunity for the mild-mannered puppy, Dolly reached
out to Wags for Hope. Within a year, the two had passed their Level II
training and were ready to volunteer at FMH.
Bentley brings his extraordinary powers of intuition to his new vocation
as a therapy dog. According to Dolly, when Bentley enters a patient’s
room, he will immediately go to the person with the greatest need. Sometimes
that’s the patient, but just as often, it’s a family member.
“We often hear later that the person he went to first had recently
been crying or had been the most upset that day.”
Can You Pet a Therapy Dog?
Sure you can! As long as you’re sure the dog is a therapy dog. That’s
not always the case if it’s a service dog.
There’s a big difference between a therapy dog and a service dog.
A therapy dog provides affection and comfort to people in hospitals, nursing
homes, retirement communities, hospices, schools, libraries—even
disaster shelters. They thrive on contact and love to be petted.
A service dog has been specially trained to assist someone who has mobility
limitations, hearing loss or deafness, a visual impairment or a condition
like autism or PTSD. They have only one handler and are not considered
a pet. When they are working, they should not be petted or distracted
so that they can maintain their focus on the tasks they are needed for.
When in doubt, ask permission.
Think Your Dog’s a Natural?
Convinced your dog has what it takes to be a therapy dog? If they’re
naturally calm, friendly and affectionate to strangers, that’s a
good start. They also need to be well trained in basic obedience, and
able to adapt to unfamiliar noises, places, smells, and equipment. You’ll
also need to make sure your dog has regular wellness check-ups and be
bathed and well-groomed at the time of all visits.
Eventually, you’ll need formal training from Wags of Hope or a similar
organization, but you can start by socializing your puppy to new people,
places, objects, and surfaces. Get a head start on commands they will
need during therapy work like “look,” “leave it,”
and behaviors like not jumping on people and loose leash walking.
“The FMH Therapy Dog program is pleased to partner with Wags for
Hope to provide our community with innovative, patient-and-family centered
care,” said Dolly Sullivan.