Dog: man’s best friend. Dogs have been human companions since the dawn of humanity. They have been there as house pets, as friends, and sometimes, even a therapist. Today, dogs have many jobs outside the typical pet description. The more well-known job for service dogs is that they are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities; however, it may be a surprise that dogs can also have occupations as emotional support. These special animals serve as a companion which provides therapeutic benefit, lessening some symptoms of a disability. Emotional support animals may also include cats and many other animals. Another type of job for dogs is being a therapy dog. A therapy dog is a dog that might be trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with autism.
“Therapy dogs are trained to visit people in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice care and even enjoy taking part in reading programs (sitting and listening to a child read). The mission is to create a loving, happy and calm atmosphere when people are facing illness or stress,” said AAT Coordinator for Advocate Sherman Hospital Shari Finger.
Animals like therapy dogs are brought into hospitals and nursing homes to boost the spirits to those who may be isolated for long periods of time.
“If you have ever seen a person with multiple sclerosis or someone that had a stroke, it tends to get monotonous, and the patient sometimes loses their drive. Bring in a big silly golden retriever and you have a completely different energy. Before you know it, the patient is playing fetch and laughing. Or, for someone that is struggling to just lift a hand can suddenly reach and pet your dog’s head, [it’s] pretty magical,” Finger said.
Not only do the dogs help raise morale or bring a tiny sliver of sunshine into patients’ lives, but the dogs may also help propel physical change in their lives.
“Therapy dogs have a magical effect on people in need. Research shows that while petting a dog, blood pressure and heart rates slow down,” Finger said.
Finger trains dogs to be diabetic alert dogs. These therapy dogs are a type of dog trained to provide alerts to their diabetic owners when their blood sugar levels start to become hypoglycemic. Training may be a long process, but Finger agrees that it is a very rewarding accomplishment.
“The emotional side effect is the [great] part. I have had people cry and hug my dog. I’ve had people who are facing great sadness smile and laugh. It’s all about creating a warm, safe and happy place.”
Although service dogs are granted special permission to go into public places, therapy dogs do not have the same privileges.
“Therapy dogs need permission to enter public places. For example, I can’t take my therapy dog into McDonald’s or I can’t walk into to hospital and visit a friend. Just because we carry certification, it is not free pass to go everywhere,” Finger said.
Many students at North have seen the therapy dogs that visited this past finals week during lunch hours.
“So far, since this past November, Asher and other Lutheran Church Charities dogs have attended an after-school AIMS Mentoring Game Night, Best Buddies meetings, our reading intervention room, several special education classrooms, and were present for our new “Relaxation Room” during finals week in December,” said social worker Megan Sayre.
The program began around 2012 when previous social worker, Randal Stotz, worked with a licensed therapy dog named Chewy.
“Our students and staff loved Chewy and responded very well to him. Chewy was here for a year and stayed with Mr. Stotz two or three days a week- in his office with students, in meetings with parents, and in and around the attendance office where Mr. Stotz’s office was located,” Sayre said.