Four dogs and their hopeful handlers will be tested at Atrium Post Acute Care in Chetek on Friday, June 7, and if they pass, they will be the newest certified therapy dog teams in the area.
The role of therapy dogs is to provide comfort and affection to people in a variety of situations. They can be used in nursing homes, hospitals, schools, courts or in homes. They are different from service dogs, which are trained perform specific tasks to help people with disabilities.
Lauri Engness is a therapy dog evaluator for Therapy Dogs International, a nonprofit and volunteer organization that tests, certifies and regulates therapy dogs. It has been around since 1976 and had nearly 25,000 dog and handler teams as of 2012.
There are 16 therapy dogs that volunteer with the PAWS with Heart program at Marshfield Medical Center in Rice Lake.
Dogs and their handlers bring comfort and companionship to people in home hospice care, Engness said. They help comfort and remind rest home residents of dogs they may have had before they moved into a nursing home. They may help memory care patients and remind them of dogs they had as children, she added.
In Eau Claire County, dogs are used to comfort kids who might be involved in tough child custody cases or other court cases.
In schools, students can practice reading to dogs because children find it less intimidating to read to a dog than a person. Therapy dogs were bought to the Barron Middle School after Jayme Closs was abducted and helped comfort her classmates, Engness noted.
“The dogs don’t ask for anything, they just want you to pet them,” Engness said. “The dogs walk up and put their head on your knee. It’s comforting.”
“There are different ways and I don’t think we’ve explored all of them,” Engness said.
Bev Shetley, of Rice Lake, and her English yellow lab, Angie, have been volunteering with PAWS for eight years. Shetley said Engness, who trained Angie at her kennel, asked her and Angie to become therapy dog volunteers because the dog seemed like a perfect candidate. Angie was tested and certified and Shetley went through hospice volunteer training.
“It’s really wonderful to see what the dogs can do and understand. They seem to sense what is needed,” Shetley said.
Shetley has seen Angie comfort a young woman with dementia. The dog seemed to sense it was the woman’s first day in that facility and needed extra companionship. Another time, a woman in a hospital asked to pet Angie, then fell to her knees and sobbed as she cuddled the dog. Angie licked away her tears. Shetley doesn’t know why the woman was upset, but she knows Angie helped comfort her, “just by being loving,” she said.
A nursing home patient only smiled when Angie was in the room. The patient gave Angie a big hug. “That was so touching,” Shetley said.
Atrium has several dogs that come to the nursing home already and Engness is doing the testing there on Friday because it is a good space to do it in. Bev and Angie will also be there, helping with the test.
Dogs must have calm temperaments, enjoy attention from people, get along with other dogs, obey basic commands and work well around crutches, wheelchairs and walkers, Engness explained.
Many people become interested in volunteering with their dogs after seeing therapy dogs in action. Anyone interested in doing so should visit TDI’s website, at www.tdi-dog.org to find an evaluator, such as herself.
Shetley urged people to consider it and said new dogs are needed as older ones retire. Engness said not all dogs can be trained to be therapy dogs. It starts with a calm temperament, then if they can be trained to pass the tests.
Shetley said anyone who is compassionate, patient and loves people can be a volunteer. “I never thought of doing something like this, but Angie showed me the way,” Shetley said.