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Therapy is going to the dogs

August 8, 2014

I’m a cat person. So I was a little nervous about going to stay with my sister Barbara for a week. Not long ago she rescued not one, not two, but three dogs. Not little ones, either: Labrador type mixed breeds.

Still, she’s been a dog owner for just about her entire life and even worked in a kennel for a short time. I was confident that I would find Camille, the mom, and her sons Buster and Buckwheat to be well-behaved and they were. They were friendly but didn’t jump on or crowd or slobber on me. When it was time for the humans to leave the house, the dogs dutifully retreated to their kennels.

Barbara had worked with the dogs to teach them to behave and had taken all three of her new charges for additional training. Buster, however, got special training as a therapy dog. He took a five-week course at “Doc’s K-9 Training Center” in Kingston, New York. Karen Garelick is a retired vet who started the business which includes a doggy day care. Prospective therapy dogs are taught the standards set by Therapy Dog International. That organization sends a judge for the dogs’ final test.

Barbara explains, “They are required to sit for a visit and not paw anyone.” They are trained to be comfortable around people in wheelchairs and to be directed by the movement of the wheelchair. The dogs learn to wait for people to exit doors first, then follow rather than charging ahead. Small dogs are allowed on laps. Barbara is trying to teach Buster to put his head on someone’s lap. “It’s easier for them to pet him when he does,” she says.

I got a chance to see Buster in action. We made a visit to the Baptist Home, a skilled nursing care home that’s part of the Community at Brookmeade in Rhinebeck. When we exited her car, Barbara put a special type of restraint on Buster. Although it fit around his face it wasn’t a muzzle. It consisted of a strap that goes around the dog’s nose and another strap that goes around the neck, just behind the ears. Buster could still open his mouth if necessary. Barbara attached the leash to this halter and explained that it was to discourage Buster from pulling her when they walk. The design of the head halter causes the dog’s nose to be turned down and back toward the person holding the leash making it difficult for the dog to pull. It doesn’t cause any pain the way a choke chain or prong collar might, and it works better than attaching the leash to a collar fitting around the dog’s neck. That arrangement allows the dog full use of his strong shoulder muscles to pull while a halter does not.

Therapy Dog BusterShe tied a Therapy Dog International kerchief around Buster’s neck and I would swear that he stood a little taller and prouder as if he knew what was coming next.

We visited two wards. Not everyone was alert and aware but in each group there were several who were. They were just delighted to see us and Buster was a real gentleman about getting petted by strangers. He even brought a smile to the staff members as we traversed the halls.

Since then, Buster has been named the dedicated therapy dog for a dementia/Alzheimer’s wing and has a standing visitation appointment at Ferncliff Nursing Home.

I asked Barbara how she got involved in this in the first place. She says, “I like volunteering and I thought this would be fun. And it is.” I could see that having a chance to brighten someone’s day did as much for her as it did for the patients.

Here in the Coastal Bend, Lee McQuay and her dog, Brandy, make therapeutic visits. Brandy is a Golden Retriever. Lee says that many different breeds from Yorkies to Great Danes and mixed breeds do therapy dog work. “Temperament is the factor, not the breed” when it comes to qualifying a dog for this service.

Lee says that Brandy was” home-schooled.” Some years ago, Lee herself had been trained by dog trainer Tony Bender. Before Lee decided to get Brandy registered as a therapy dog, the dog had already been trained in obedience and manners and gotten her CGC (Canine Good Citizen) title. Therapy dog training meant taking Brandy to nursing homes for exposure to the medical environment, wheelchairs, IV poles, etc. Brandy proved to be a natural. “She gravitated to people needing her be it patient, family or staff.

Two groups in this area do therapy dog testing: Therapy Dog Inc. and the Therapy Dog International that tested my sister’s dog Buster. Lee explains that there’s a “slight difference in their testing procedures but basically identical in their criteria. International does the testing at specific locations, bringing in hospital equipment and is completed in one session. ‘Inc.’ requires three sessions on three separate days. The first is at a general location for the obedience part, followed by two separate visits at two separate medical facilities where you and your dog are observed and evaluated.”

Courses are also available at Petsmart.

Depending on the human/canine team, training takes at least a couple of months to complete.

Lee McQuay, Brandy, therapy dog teamTherapy dogs serve at hospitals, rehab centers and nursing homes. Lee and Brandy now live in Mountain City, Tennessee and are also part of the “Tail Waggin’ Tutor” program as part of the Tennessee Literacy Program. That involves taking the dogs to schools, libraries and other facilities to help children learn to read. Lee says that “it has been proven to be a good learning tool particularly for children just learning to read and/or having any problems. They are not intimidated reading ‘out loud’ to the dogs as they are with adults and classmates—dogs don’t make fun of them.” I can just picture it, can’t you?

The visits that I made with Barbara and Buster were quite brief. Lee McQuay says “We try to keep visits short; knock on the door, ask if they would like a visit; if so, we go in, play it by ear:” Lee lets Brandy be petted and praised, maybe do a couple of tricks but primarily they let the patient or family dictate. “There are times when we are asked to sit, visit and listen; Brandy will quietly lay down while the patient and/or family unburden their souls. We develop a sense of what is needed, and I am fortunate that Brandy leads the way!”

Nursing homes usually only require proof of rabies and well-mannered dogs.  Hospitals are much more stringent for insurance purposes. Lee says that the therapy dog must have all the proper credentials. Handlers have their own set of criteria to meet, depending of the hospital’s protocol which include a detailed application form, background check, letters of recommendation, TB test, flu vaccine, photo ID, two-hour orientation/walk-through, and another observation of the handler and the dog working. Before our visit to the Baptist Home my sister and I made a separate trip so that she could have her test for TB approved.

Lee says that while therapy dogs are not permitted in intensive care or maternity wards, they are welcome in the PCU (progressive care unit) and CCU (cancer care unit). “The CCU is special,” Lee says. “Patients are there for infusion, which could vary from one to six hours; having a visit from a friendly TDI team is always welcome.” I remember accompanying my late husband for his infusions and yes, I can see how a therapy dog would contribute to that situation. So I can understand Lee’s reply when I asked her how she got involved with therapy dog work? “I hesitate answering this question, but the reality is I lost Bob, my husband of 23-plus years last October. He had been a patient and I thought this would be a way of giving back. The staff was so good to us, and can you imagine, what it is like now, for so many of them, to drop to their knees and hug Brandy, doctors to housekeeping?

Want to get involved? Lee suggests that dog owners get Basic Training to the CGC level whether they intend to do therapy or simply walk in the park. “Then go to a nursing home and see if your dog would enjoy and be comfortable with being a Therapy dog. If so, go to either website and find what is available in your area.”

For more information, check out Therapy Dogs International at or Therapy Dogs Inc.  Then you and your dog can bring a little joy to someone who really needs it. I’ll see you there.

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