The Rewards of Visiting and Therapy Dog Work: Memories of Lily, Elizabeth and Evie – by Dr. Patricia F. First

This story is about three of my Irish Wolfhounds who both loved and excelled at visiting and therapy dog work.  Doing this work with them brought me much joy and I write about these memories in the hope that others may become interested in sharing their dogs with their communities in this way.

Lily visited veterans’ hospitals and liked best the veterans in wheel chairs because they were the same height as she was and they could look in each other’s eyes and have a real conversation.  Going to the veteran’s hospital was fun for her, but she suffered with those she comforted each week in the locked wards of the Alzheimer’s wing in the nearby nursing home.
Elizabeth went to the cancer wing of a hospital and sat with patients while they received their chemotherapy.  She “just knew” which patients wanted her to stay a while with her lovely head resting on their chest and which ones wanted just a quick kiss or a wag before she moved on.  Every patient wanted her to visit in some way.

The children decorated these photos.

Evie preferred the happy atmosphere of the elementary school where she had appointments for children to read to her in the Paws for Reading Program.  Evie was a particularly sensitive soul, one for whom the heartbreak of the hospital or the nursing home would have been too heavy.

There is a myth about the visiting and therapy dogs that they just walk in some place with their person and all is fun and laughter while people pat and hug them.  Or that they just perform tricks or routines and get praised.  And part of that myth is that anyone and any dog can do it, without training and tests and certifications.  Sometimes this is the case by happenstance.  Perhaps a family brings the dog to visit a relative in a nursing home and keeps visiting to bring pleasure to others living there.   And this is a good thing to be doing in the world.

But the working visiting and therapy dogs are operating in another dimension in their service.  They and their people have gone through weeks, sometimes months of intense training and testing to prove their capability in different settings and their performance at different levels of expectations while in those settings.  These dogs have shown they can focus on the people needing help in the chaos of emergency rooms, the sometimes frightening and aggressive people in psychiatric wards,   crowds of emotionally disturbed children, the presence of death in the hospice.  They have proven they can work with intensity while with other kinds of creatures, a miniature horse perhaps, often chickens or rabbits or other farm animals, certainly cats and hamsters and birds and every variety and size of dog.  They have shown that even when tired and stressed or overly stimulated themselves they will try to help the person who needs them.
There are differences between a visiting dog and a therapy dog.  Both do important work and make no mistake, it is work for the dog.  The visiting dog does just that.  She visits and in visiting brings pleasure and comfort.  In healthcare settings the visitor provides a positive experience in what otherwise is a boring, painful and stressful day.  Today research has given us documented proof of the positive impact brought by the presence of a comforting animal. 

The therapy dog brings specific skills, training and sensitivities to the setting in addition to what is required for the visiting dog work.  The therapy dog works with a health care professional, such as a physical therapist, in goal directed therapy with a patient to hasten recovery.  If throwing a ball ten times with each arm several times a week will help a stroke victim to recovery the therapy dog is there to consistently bring it back each time to exactly the spot the patient can grasp it, transforming a routine chore into a happy experience for the patient.  The therapy dog may have several appointments in a day to help various professionals in a variety of ways.  The next patient may need to move his arms in such a way that brushing a perfectly still therapy dogs will provide.  The dog must allow the exact same movement from the patient countless times.  Sometimes the therapy dog will be asked to stay and calm a frightened family member waiting during surgery on a loved one, or to walk with a patient learning to walk again, or listen while a patient tries to read to the dog while learning how to speak again.  In appointment after appointment the therapy dog does the task needed to aid in the recovery. 

One of the things we as handlers need to know is that our therapy dog is really working and it is hard work calling for intense focus and concentration.  Sometimes, after a day of appointments like those described above my Elizabeth would sleep almost the entire next day after the exersion.  But then she would be ready and eager to do it all again.    The visiting dog is really working too.  No matter how friendly and outgoing the dog, it gets to be work to have crowds of people wanting to touch and hug , perhaps pull the fur, be noisy on the dog’s face.  A full visit in a busy setting is tiring and the visiting dog too needs time for recuperation.

Not all dogs can happily and successfully work in all settings.  Nor should they have to.  We all have our preferences, our special talents, so do our dogs.  Part of our job as handlers is to learn that about our dog, to know she is working where she wants to be.  Elizabeth loved the active appointments at a hospital, working with staff on a specific goal.   Lily bounded up the stairs on the way to see her friends stricken with Alzheimers.  And gentle Evie went happily to her appointments with children having difficulty reading.

For any of us working like this with our dogs there are special moments we will never forget. On one visit, when Lily entered an empty room where she expected to visit a woman she cared about she suddenly raised her head and howled in grief.  I thought the woman had been moved to another room but Lily knew instantly that her friend had died.  I don’t think there was a dry eye on the floor at that moment.  And once when Evie was at her appointments with the children she fell asleep and the little boy shook her saying, “Wake up, Evie. This is a good story and I haven’t finished!” Perhaps my most moving memory is of a visit Elizabeth made to the Maine Veterans’ Home.  One of the men really thought Elizabeth was his dog and told me his dog was now living with a relative.  But when we next visited he showed me a picture from 50 years ago of a dog who looked very much like Elizabeth.  Though his memory was confused “his dog” Elizabeth made him very happy each time we visited.

The most difficult setting for a dog is a hospice.  Not all dogs can do it.  The heavy presence of death is too much for most sensitive dogs, but there are sensitive dogs who can do this important work.  A friend of mine wrote movingly about visiting the hospice with her elderly Irish Wolfhound, Quincy.   She wrote that Quincy was very sweet and gentle, but she never knew how much so until the day in hospice that he knew a dying women would be comforted if he crept on the bed and lay with her until she slept.  “I will never forget when Quincy met this sweet woman who proceeded to inform us of her illness and having to give up her beloved pets.”   Perhaps this example tells us the clearest why it is so meaningful and rewarding for us to share our own dogs as visiting and therapy dogs.

Our loved furry family members can be so good at this work.  In doing it they make a difference for many.  It’s our job to make it happen, to go through all the training, to always bathe them and brush them and put on a cheerful scarf or dressy collar and make sure they are consistently where they are expected to be.  And the training and testing for them and for us doesn’t end after initial completions.  It is an ongoing process to work with the group we have joined to do this work well.  There are two national organizations you can contact to get started, the Delta Society with which you and your dog can become Delta Pet Partners, and Therapy Dogs International (TDI).  The Delta Society is open to many kinds of animals to become visiting and therapy animals.  TDI is for dogs only.  In my own experience in four states, The Delta Society offered more and more varied experiences and training and the testing was more vigorous.  This of course may vary in other places. 

Also in my own experience the very best training and testing was done by local groups who went beyond the requirements and expectations of the national groups, sometimes in conjunction with those groups and sometimes on their own.  For example in Ohio we worked with the Miami Valley Pet Therapy Association, which provided truly excellent schooling and training, and Dogtors, founded by Bob Wisenberger who is a leader in this field, and goes even farther in how therapy dogs can serve. Dogtors has trained teams for settings from dental offices to disaster zones and therapy after tragedies such as school shootings.  Other cities have such service groups, such as the therapy dog programs we joined at the Tucson Arizona Humane Society and here we have the South Carolina Therapy Dogs and other groups. 

Many of us in the Irish Wolfhound community do this visiting and therapy dog work.  Our “Gentle Giants” seem to be especially suited for it but so are countless other kinds of dogs and cats and other animals.  I encourage more people to do this with the animals they love.  In sharing our time this way we and our dogs can give service to our communities.  It’s such a winning combination.  We can serve others and spend meaningful time with our dogs as well.  What more could we ask.

Jean First, Volunteer

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