Pet Therapy

In the early 1980's while, I was living in the Sanford area, Pet Therapy was just in its beginning stages. I was the owner of a kennel/animal shelter and I heard about the Therapy Dog program through some of the publications that came to the kennel and was immediately intrigued. I also have a handicapped child and had noticed how petting and brushing the dogs would sooth her when she was upset over things in her life that were out of her control. Living quite a distance from my family was hard on her because before we had moved she had a very close relationship with her grandparents.

I began looking into the program and found that only certain dogs could be registered as Therapy Dogs, they had to be obedience trained and have that training certified by someone other than the owner and/or trainer. They had to pass a Canine Good Citizen Test and have a calm, stable, loving temperament. They had to become used to unusual sights and startling sounds, their training was similar to the training a Service Dog receives. After a lot of work, I had two of my dogs trained, certified, and registered with Therapy Dogs International. Raine and Helga Von Piglet were ready to go to work. Raine had begun training as a Search and Rescue dog when a bad hip ended his career and Piggy had been rescued from a horrible life at the end of a four-foot chain.

I went to all the nursing homes in Sanford and gave each Activities Director an information package I had made up about the program with the dog's registration and certification papers included, and discussed at length what I planned to do with the patients. At first, I encountered some resistance. Remember, this was twenty years ago and pets were just animals, and animals were not allowed into institutions. These dogs were also Rottweilers. I persisted and gained permission to come to Greenwood Nursing Home.

I think everyone had forgotten that most of the presidents had been farmers when they were young and owned or worked with animals for a good deal of their life. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have owned a pet for years and then go to a nursing home and never touch an animal again until you die. The staff was amazed at the reception we received. Nearly every patient wanted to see and pet the dogs. They laughed and hugged the dogs, patients that had not interacted with others began to come out of their rooms and socialize with the group when we had the dogs performing their tricks in the living room. When the main performance was over, we went room to room interacting one on one with the patients. It did not take long for the word to get around what a wonderful thing we were doing and before I knew it, we were invited to every nursing home.

While I was visiting the homes, I witnessed three miracles that I think illustrates the wonderful thing that happens to people when they interact with animals. The first miracle happened at Greenwood.

I had been visiting for more than six months and one woman never came out of her room after she came to the home. She angrily slammed the door in my face every time I knocked and asked if she would like a visitor. One day I tapped on her door and asked if she would like a visitor, expecting her to slam the door as usual. To my surprise, she invited us in. She sat on her bed and Raine went over, put his big head in her lap, and nuzzled her hand until it was on top of his head. His soulful brown eyes looked deeply into hers and she broke down sobbing. She hugged his head, cried, and sobbed so loudly the nurses rushed in thinking the dog had bit her or hurt her. She rocked and sobbed into his neck for a good ten minutes before she could talk to us. Raine slobbered her face with wet kisses and finally she was laughing and hiccupping when she let go of him.

She hugged me and thanked me for persisting, and then she told me her story. Just before her husband had died he had gotten he a puppy. The dog had been her constant companion for seventeen years before she finally had to move to the nursing home. One of her nephews, she had no children, had offered to take the dog and had promised to bring the dog to see her. Two weeks after he had taken the dog he had it put down and she had never seen it again. She had been holding all of her pain and grief inside and was just waiting to die so she could be with her husband and dog again. After releasing her sorrow, she began to come out of her room and interact with other residents. She began going out into the community and participated in many trips and activities before she died a several years later. I believe that if I had not stopped at her door every time I visited, she would have wasted away and died of loneliness in a short time. This woman had been a world traveler and had climbed Mount Fuji, the Matta Horn, and part way up Mount Everest in the 1950's.

The second miracle was at Sanford Manor. My companion had gone to school with Stevie when they were children and he still remembered when Stevie had been hit by a car. Stevie suffered severe brain damage and was in a wheel chair. He had no muscle control over his limbs and was unable to communicate except for croaks and grunts. The first time I visited him, I had Raine put his front paws on the arm of Stevie's wheelchair and Raine gave Stevie the most delicate kiss on the end of his nose. Stevie laughed out loud! He gurgled and cooed and laughed, not at all the usual sounds Stevie made. Every week we visited Stevie and he would turn his eyes and smile when Raine came into view. He would flop himself over in his chair so Raine could lick his face. Raine would position his head under Stevie's hands and those useless hands would clutch at Raine's fur. Stevie would laugh and it never failed to bring tears to the eyes of the aids that had cared for Stevie for so many years. The aids would tell Stevie that Raine was coming to visit and he would smile and laugh. Stevie had been pretty much a vegetable until we began visiting; the aids said we made Stevie come to life again.

The third miracle was the biggest one in my mind because it made even tough old thing like me cry. This miracle happened at Sanford Health Care Facility after we had been visiting for several months. We had not gone into one room because the woman was in a semi-coma and the room was kept quite dark. She was in her thirties and had suffered severe head injuries in a car accident. One of the aids came to me as I was making my rounds and asked me to come into Mary's room. The aid stroked Mary's hair and said she had always felt so sad because no one ever came to visit Mary. She was one of the forgotten ones. This time we broke the rules. The aid closed the door, I had Raine put his front paws on her bed, and he stretched over and sniffed her carefully. He sensed there was something different about her. I took her hand, placed it on his big head, and stroked it. Raine sighed and got all the way on the bed, snuggled up to her, and nuzzled her neck and ear. Had someone in authority walked in we would have been asked to leave because one of the things I agreed to was that the dogs would not get on the beds. We did this every time I visited. About two months later I noticed her fingers began twitching when I stroked Raine with her hand. Her breathing would change when Raine snuggled up to her side on the bed. One day as the aid and I came into the room, I gave Mary my usual cheery, “Hello Mary, Raine is here to see you!” Mary lifted her head a couple of inches off the pillow, rolled her eyes to the door and smiled. This woman had been basically unconscious and immobile for years. The aid screamed and ran out of the room crying and hollering for everyone to come quick. Of course, everyone thought the dog had attacked or injured Mary and they all came running. I was grateful that three other aids got there before she laid her head back down and witnessed the miracle with Jean and I. I am sure no one would have believed us if we did not have the three other witnesses. Poor Raine, confused by the hubbub, thought he might have done something wrong; he sat in the corner and hung his head. Everyone, including myself, was crying and more people kept coming to the room to see what the commotion was. I called Raine over, had him put his front paws on the bed, and stroked his head with Mary's hand so they could see her hand twitch and clutch at his fur. The corners of her mouth turned up just the slightest bit but you could tell she was smiling. Much to Jean's and my dismay, Raine jumped on the bed, snuggled up to her, nuzzling her neck and whimpering softly. Then he slowly began licking her cheek and her smile grew bigger. Expecting a reprimand, I started to call him off the bed and the administrator stopped me. Softly he said, “Let them be. If it makes Mary happy, let them be.” He walked away wiping tears off his cheeks. Sadly, Mary never responded that dramatically again, but every week she “petted” Raine and smiled until the week we came in and found she had passed away two days before. Usually when someone passed away, Raine would not enter the room if it were empty. He would pause at the door, sniff, look at me sadly and move on to the next room. This time he went right to the bed, jumped up, lay down and gave a big sigh. He lay there a few minutes, got down and went to the door.

While visiting the nursing homes I saw how the patients would cheer up when they knew Raine was coming to visit. The aids told me that even the most difficult patients would be cooperative if they knew the dogs were coming. They would eat, get cleaned up and dressed, and be sitting in the day room waiting for us. On special occasions, I would dress the dogs up in costumes. At Easter time Helga, wearing rabbit ears and a pompom tail, had a little basket with goodies like soap, perfume, pens, pencils, etc. she would take around to the residents and they could pick something out of it. She also gave out May baskets, I did whatever I could think of that might cheer the residents and make them laugh. At Christmas time, Raine wore his Reindeer antlers and my companion dressed up as Santa. Helga had a red devils costume with horns and a long tail for Halloween. One resident told me with a hearty laugh that her great-grandchildren were mad at her because she had fed the dog all the graham crackers she usually kept for the kids and now kept dog biscuits in her bottom drawer. I saw a great deal of change in the residents after we began visiting and my daughter gained many, many grandparents that loved her dearly.

We also visited the homes for handicapped children. Raine had a little sulkey cart he pulled and we would take the kids out of their wheel chairs and give them rides in the dog cart. Many had severe allergies and this was the only way they could interact with an animal, they all loved it and looked forward to our visits. For me it was the best time of my life.

Written by Debra Cone