Local chapter of Therapy Dogs International endorses certified dogs and handlers
by MELODIE DAVIS
Most dogs are mostly pampered pooches we sometimes joke about envying because they don’t have to work for a living. But increasingly, many breeds of dogs are trained not only as hard working canines who guide the blind on busy city streets or sniff out bombs in airports and stadiums—but to comfort and nourish children, cheer up the elderly, soothe cancer patients and a wide range of persons with special needs.
The Harrisonburg/Rockingham County area is fortunate to have a chapter of Therapy Dogs International (TDI) operating here in the Valley. But when Jessica Troop of Bridgewater first became interested in having her dog trained and certified to visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools or libraries, she had to drive almost three hours round trip to Culpepper to a testing location. In testing, the dog is put through a variety of tough situations simulating actual therapy work. Jessica arrived so stressed she resolved to help begin a local training program certifying therapy dogs—which she did and now serves as director of the local TDI chapter.
Therapy Dogs International is just one organization of this nature, coordinating volunteers who regulate, test and register dogs and dog handlers for “work” wherever therapy dogs are helpful. TDI makes sure dogs in the program are up to date on vaccines and other shots, have an annual health exam, and provides overall insurance and a reference point when institutions sometimes cautiously explore having therapy dogs.
Bonnie Ayers, a retired pediatric nurse, is assistant director (volunteer) of the local chapter of TDI. She enjoys taking Gemma, her laid back yellow lab to Spotswood Elementary school once a week, Smithland Elementary once a week and the Massanutten Regional Library Central Branch twice a month. The children take turns reading aloud to Gemma which promotes a love of reading.
Bonnie points out this is helpful because dogs are non-judgmental. “They make excellent listeners to early readers who might stumble or be shy in reading to an adult or someone who corrects them,” she enlightens. While children often need help in pronouncing words, corrections can make reading stressful and distasteful for some children. “Reading to a dog builds their confidence” says Bonnie.
Initially Gemma was in a training program learning to guide the blind. But Gemma was so laid back she didn’t show the needed energy to undergo that rigorous training and lifestyle—perhaps walking miles a day for city dwellers. So Bonnie adopted and trained her for gentler therapy work.
“It took my breath away when a child stopped stuttering when she petted my dog.”—Ann Baker
Bonnie and Gemma have also visited with children with multiple disabilities or autism at various schools in the past. The children “pet on her, love on her” and greet her as a “rock star.” Sometimes children “come in scared of dogs, especially large ones,” notes Bonnie. But as they get to know Gemma and find out what a gentle soul she is, they are educated about how to behave around dogs.
There are no breed restrictions or prejudices against breeds such as pit bulls or Rottweilers for the program. Even dogs that have been unruly and perhaps mistreated and put up for “rescue” or adoption can be trained. Jessica said her dog, Kayla, at 1 year of age, had been tied to a tree with her feet frozen to the ground. Jessica and her daughter Maya have had Kayla now for six years and sometimes people recoil in fear when they find out she’s a pit bull, but relax as they get to know her.
Visiting schools, hospitals and nursing homes can be very rewarding. At one school Bonnie recalled reading with a student. In greeting the child, Bonnie casually asked her how she was. “She just froze up. I didn’t know what was wrong and found out later the child had recently been involved in a fatal car accident where someone died.” Gemma somehow sensed something and paid the child extra attention, putting her head on the girl’s shoulder while the child read. “It was like she knew,” recalled Bonnie. “The child’s demeanor was completely turned around after her session with Gemma.
Jessica says at times it doesn’t appear much happens when a therapy dog visits a nursing home or hospital room. But later she’ll hear from a staff member who says, “That’s the first time that person smiled all week! Then I’m reminded, that’s why we do what we do,” explains Jessica. “Sometimes we don’t see the immediate effects.”
Bonnie and Jessica both connect with Ann Baker, who had the first registered therapy dog in Harrisonburg public schools. Ann notes it all started locally when Gail Fox and Andrea Nolley at Waterman Elementary School heard about “reading” dogs and were eager to try them out in the library there. Ann’s dog Bailey was an instant hit. Now Ann works as scheduler and mentor for others, as Bailey has passed on. Ann keeps an email list for when a new school or institution requests a therapy dog. She also helps Jessica teach some classes and found another chapter member to help her teach in Augusta County.
Ann says it takes a lot of work to get a dog certified. “Jessica and I tell the folks taking classes that they are already special just to even consider starting this process. It is heartbreaking when they don’t pass, as so much effort has gone into it.” Ann adds many do retest successfully which means “there is an excellent team producing well qualified trained dogs and owners here in Harrisonburg.”
Ann testifies to the gifts therapy dogs offer those with whom they come in contact. “To see an adult that is confined to a wheel chair break out into a broad grin is truly awesome,” Ann says. “It took my breath away when a child stopped stuttering when she petted my dog.”
The local chapter has certified an estimated 100 people and their dogs for therapy work—and there is still more demand from homeless shelters, schools, Western State Hospital, other hospitals, hospice care and library programs. Newly trained therapy dog owners need to make a working visit to a location within the first three months of training or they lose certification; after that, they make visits as often as it suits them. As an all-volunteer organization, each dog owner is responsible for initiating and maintaining visiting schedules.
Children can be certified to be a dog handler for therapy visits. Jessica’s daughter, Maya, took the test but Kayla wouldn’t listen to some of her commands, so as yet hasn’t passed the test. “Even if a dog is already certified with a handler, if a different handler wants to work with that dog, that handler must pass the test with the dog as well,” notes Jessica. She explained a dog might work well with one person, but not another.
Maya is homeschooled and says Kayla helps her as she’s learning to read. But it’s not only young students who benefit from the relaxation and devoted attention dogs can bring. TDI dogs sometimes hang out with college students at EMU, JMU and Bridgewater, especially during exam weeks to help relieve stress.
Jessica and Bonnie see the program as a win-win-win: for the dogs (some who have been rescued from certain death); for their owners who may be retired and looking for meaningful community involvement; and for the children, young adults and senior citizens they often visit.
Melodie Davis, editor of Valley Living, is the mother of three young adult daughters, and lives with her husband near Harrisonburg, Va. She also blogs at www.FindingHarmonyBlog.com.
Jessica’s business, “The Balanced Dog, LLC” offers dog training especially for dogs with behavioral issues. Through the City of Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation program and Blue Ridge Community College, she also offers therapy dog preparation classes, with a certification test offered at the end of the class. She has also just started similar classes in Augusta County. The website for her business is www.balanceddogllc.com.
You can read what the testing for a dog involves at the TDI website under “Testing Requirements.” http://www.tdi-dog.org.