It’s Saturday afternoon at the Sid McMath Library branch in Little Rock, and a quiet ring of middle school girls sits on chairs and beanbags reading children’s books aloud to two dogs wearing bandanas. Audi, a scruffy Schnauzer mix, and Phydeaux, an oatmeal-colored, Standard Poodle, are there for a monthly reading program called “Tailwaggin’ Tutors,” sponsored by a local branch of Therapy Dogs, International (TDI).
When children read to animals, their fears and self-consciousness melt away, explains Audi’s owner and handler, Karen Martin. “A lot of the kids we see also come from homes without pets, so they can become comfortable with animals while improving their reading.” There is ample tail-wagging and tutoring going on, as well as many happy sounds from the girls as the dogs sniff their way around the group, experiencing different varieties of petting and cuddles.
Training to volunteer
Last year Martin heard about a free nine-week obedience training class at a local church to help dogs pass certification to be therapy dogs. She promptly signed Audi up. After completing the class and passing TDI’s test, Audi received a photo ID card and a bandana identifying her as a therapy dog, and they got to work volunteering on weekends.
Dogs as reading tutors is just one of many ways therapy dogs serve communities, said Mary Armstrong, director of Able Paws, Inc., a local nonprofit chapter of another national therapy dog group, Pet Partners. Able Paws volunteers mostly in 15-20 Central Arkansas hospitals and health care facilities.
Armstrong’s dog, Hobie, a lively English Springer Spaniel, was so high energy she had him in an obedience/therapy training class at least two nights a week for two years. “Some of the dogs require less, but Hobie had to have a lot of training.”
Now Hobie’s a natural. “He heads for whoever he thinks needs him most,” Armstrong says. “He seems to know where to go.”
Working with pediatric patients
Hobie and Armstrong mostly work at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH). Under staff supervision, she brings him to the playroom to interact with the patients. Sometimes a doctor orders a therapy dog for a child having chemotherapy or another procedure in the hematology/oncology clinic, and Hobie will hang out with the patient until the treatment is finished. It’s rewarding, Armstrong says. “I’ve had parents thank us for coming and tell me [Hobie’s visit] was the first time they’ve seen their child smile in the two weeks they’ve been in the hospital.”
Occasionally, a very sick child requests a therapy dog for an end-of-life visit. Armstrong says she and Hobie haven’t been called for that yet, but others in their group have, and consider it an honor to be able to help. “You just cannot put a price on that comfort,” Armstrong says.
Armstrong understands from personal experience, too. Her first encounter with therapy dogs was a couple that would visit her brother during his final weeks of hospice. “He loved those dogs,” she recalls. “That was his great joy, having them visit.”
Another incident in Armstrong’s 35-year career teaching school cemented her interest in working with therapy animals after she retired. “I had a student with an illness requiring her to be hospitalized for weeks and weeks. She would cry because she couldn’t have her dog up there,” Armstrong says. “So when I heard ACH was getting a therapy dog program started, I became very interested in being part of that.”
Five dogs from Able Paws, Hobie included, are starting work on a two-year research project with ACH. As Armstrong explains it, the dogs and handlers will visit regularly with children who have had openheart surgery or a heart transplant. Researchers will monitor the children’s progress to assess if patients ambulate quicker, exercise more and have less pain when working with therapy dogs than without them.
Not just for dogs
For allergy and health reasons, dogs are often the only therapy animals hospitals allow, but many other animals can do other therapy work. For example, Armstrong says evaluators can assess rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, llamas, birds, horses, pigs and cats. Mini-horses are popular therapy animals, too.
She says “pocket pets” like rabbits, rats and guinea pigs are especially good for nursing homes. “You put a calm rabbit in a dementia patient’s lap, and it’s just amazing what they will do for each other,” Armstrong says.
Martin experienced that with Audi, too. She took Audi to an assisted living facility to visit the residents. “One woman just held Audi in her lap and stroked her and murmured to her for about 20 minutes,” Martin recalls, “She was somewhere else mentally, but completely enjoying the experience. Audi was so happy.”
Could your pet qualify?
Armstrong says the group often gets calls from people who are hoping to get their pets certified as therapy animals so that they can take them in more public places and travel with them more easily, like Carrie Fisher’s famous therapy dog, Gary. “We tell them, ‘You can go through the process, but we cannot give you any certification that will give you any benefits. For example, our dogs are not allowed in stores unless all dogs are allowed in stores,’” she explains. Being able to do the volunteer work is the reward.
Dogs of any breed, size, sex, or age can be effective therapy dogs, but the work is not for everyone. “Not all dogs love people,” Martin cautions, “I have two other dogs that I wouldn’t even think of getting involved in this. They are terriers, very barky, and kind of aggressive on a leash. Audi isn’t like that. Whenever we walk past someone, she tilts her head up and calmly looks at them. I had a hunch she would love doing this.”
Training programs are becoming easier to find throughout the state. Personal costs can include classes, testing, dues, and vet and grooming visits. Both Armstrong and Martin recommend looking online for therapy dog resources in your area to find a program that fits your — and your animal’s — needs.
“There is need for therapy animals everywhere, so it’s good we’re seeing more programs get started,” Armstrong says. “Once the animals are trained and evaluated, they can help anywhere people need comforting. But you have to have a passion for it, and your dog has to love it.” For more information visit: www.tdi-dog.org, www.petpartners.org, www.ablepaws-arkansas.com.