By Ashley FILIPEK
It has long been acknowledged by medical professionals that the acceptance and unconditional love given patients by therapy animals play a key role in reducing stress, improving self-esteem and decreasing recovery time. Dogs, long considered man’s best friend, have been identified as being particularly successful in providing comfort and assistance to those in hospitals, nursing homes and other assisted living facilities. This is perhaps why in California alone there are more than 50 therapy dog organizations.
A therapy dog has been trained to provide affection and comfort to people not only recovering from medical challenges but also to those with learning difficulties or facing stressful situations, such as in a disaster area. Locally, you can find these four-legged visitors at Verdugo Hills and Glendale Adventist hospitals, ready to lend a paw.
Hollywood Dog Obedience Club, or HDOC, is one non-profit organization that has been taking a small group of dogs to Verdugo Hills Hospital for about six years. HDOC was founded in 1949 to “better the relationships and lives of dogs and their owners,” according to its website. In addition to being a fully licensed member of the American Kennel Club (AKC), HDOC has been a long-time supporter of therapy dog work. Members volunteer their time to take therapy dogs – which are their own pets – to VHH.
“[They] are a group of friends who met through the club and enjoy visiting the same hospital,” said HDOC president Karen Saunders. ‘There is another therapy dog group that does visit one floor of Verdugo Hills Hospital, so we try to go there on different days so the patients aren’t overwhelmed.”
Therapy dogs can be of any size or breed, as long as it has a friendly, patient disposition. A good therapy dog is also confident, gentle, and at ease in all situations especially since interaction between patient and animal can be physically awkward or limited.
“We buy [the dogs] and train them because we like to compete in obedience, rally and agility dog shows. Most of these dogs have titles or ribbons for winning in shows, and some are breed champions,” said Saunders. “Because we enjoy training our dogs, we look for things to do with well trained dogs. If the dogs like people, we often choose to do more extensive training so they can go out and meet the public. If we have time to volunteer, then we think about taking the TDI (Therapy Dog International) test or other therapy dog tests so we [can] take our dogs out to help others.”
The training to become a therapy dog encompasses basic obedience (heel, sit, stay, come) through advanced obedience (walking over food without taking it, staying with a stranger while the owner is out of sight, and walking through noisy crowds). A dog cannot be tested until it is more than a year old.
Therapy dogs are administered a 15 part test, which can be found at the Therapy Dog International website.
Said Saunders, “It is not easy. Only about half of the dogs that I test, pass.”
Karin Heard, a volunteer on the eighth floor of Verdugo Hills Hospital, has been bringing her dog, Honey Girl, in to work with patients for the last eight years.
“Its definitely a very important way to encourage a person to get well,” said Heard. “It brings out conversation and the dog itself, I think, is a means of giving comfort and a warm attitude to helping the person to heal.”
There are many places that therapy dogs can work. Some go to hospitals or hospices, others visit schools, or others go to libraries for children to read to them. The list of possibilities for where they can go and what they can do to help others is almost endless.