That's a good dog
By Kristen Ryan
Imagine a friend who knows you well enough to sit quietly by your side and just let you cry. She's not busy cleaning your sink or cajoling you to eat. She'd never judge what you say, how you feel or how you grieve. She doesn't want anything in return. Such a pal is hard to find, and is absolutely priceless.
Maplewood and South Orange are home to several friends who do all these things as volunteers. They're willing and available to visit you or a loved one when you need them most and they won't wait for a thank-you note to come in the mail. So what if they have four feet?
My dog Ace and I are a certified therapy-dog team. We volunteer at St. Barnabas Medical Center, where we visit general surgery and cardiac patients. We are also one of the first five therapy-dog teams to be certified to visit hospice patients through the St. Barnabas Hospice and Palliative Care "Paws for Patients" program.
Therapy dogs are evaluated, certified and insured to work around even the frailest patients in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, schools, libraries and private homes. They come in all different breeds, shapes and sizes and they serve an invaluable purpose.
Research has shown that visiting with a therapy dog (or cat, or bunny, or chinchilla, for that matter) helps patients relax, lowers their blood pressure and reduces their heart rate and stress levels.
Therapy dogs are volunteers' household pets and are usually trained by their owner/handler. While therapy dogs are permitted inside the facilities where they volunteer, they do not have the same all-access privileges granted to service dogs.
Several organizations certify therapy dogs in New Jersey. We are members of Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc. Founded by June Golden in 1992, the organization holds monthly dog evaluations in local nursing homes. The testing ensures that the dogs can work around medical equipment like canes and wheel chairs, that they don't jump, and that they can work with other therapy dogs.
If your dog is so tennis-ball-obsessed that he'd mug an old lady for the ones on the feet of her walker, this work isn't for him. Any healthy dog that can pass the test can be certified, as long as his handler is willing to do at least one volunteer visit each month.
The toughest part of the test for us was the "leave it" rule. Dogs must walk past a treat on the floor and resist the temptation to eat it. Eating a pill (or other nasty stuff) found on the floor in a facility could kill the dog. It's absolutely imperative that the dog obeys this rule. We practiced with cheddar cheese (Ace's kryptonite) until he could walk past, though his eyes never leave the cheese.
As Ace's handler I am the only person certified to volunteer with him, but if he could drive, he probably wouldn't need me to come along. The dogs do all of the heavy lifting. The handlers are just the people holding the leash. Sometimes I think, "I could be standing here topless and this patient wouldn't notice." They are so focused on the dog.
We have a clear goal when we visit. If the day Ace visits is better than yesterday, mission accomplished. We aren't going to cure the illness or take the pain away completely, but we've seen Alzheimer's patients become lucid, smile, make eye contact and say hello when the dog enters the room. We've seen stroke patients throw a ball for the dog when they haven't played at anything for months. They smile and they laugh. Sometimes we chat and sometimes they just sit and pat.
One therapy-dog handler I know has a terrific therapy dog named Barnaby. Barnaby, a golden retriever, established a great rapport with a nursing-home resident. The man anticipated Barnaby's visit and lit up when the dog came into the room and jumped up on his bed, something therapy dogs are welcome to do.with permission, of course.
One day they arrived to visit and the resident wasn't in his room. He had been transferred to a hospice facility where the administration was kind enough to allow Barnaby to visit. They found the patient incoherent, thrashing and moaning in his bed. Barnaby came into the room and the man quieted. His violent movements stopped. He held the dog and stroked him without a word. Three hours after Barnaby went home, the man died.
I am frequently asked, "Isn't that difficult, visiting people who are dying?" Well, sure it is! But if I were a hospice patient, I'd want a dog on my bed for sure. Someone told me I'd get out of it 10 times what I put in, and I've absolutely found that to be true.
Kristen Ryan and Ace live in Maplewood, where Ace is undergoing treatment for canine lymphoma. Together they run the blog TherapyDogsHeal.com.
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