Monday, May 30, 2016

A Nod to the Service Dog

A Nod to the Service Dog One of my favorite school libraries is within the school of VFES (Valley Forge Educational Services) which is located in Malvern Pennsylvania. Maggie and I have been lucky enough to visit there for the past two years. We have met many wonderful children (and faculty). So why do I love the library so much? When you walk in you are greeted with many bright welcoming colors. It is like you are embraced with a warm hug. As I sit there and listen to the children practice their reading to Maggie I sneak a peek at the titles of the many hundreds of books. I yearn to stay after our official visit and spend a lazy afternoon reliving my youth with the likes of Dr Suess, The Hardy Boys and The Nancy Drew series. I admire the Librarian as she greets each child by name when they enter. They take their seat at a table and await instructions. On a day when the therapy animals arrive we wait for the children to gather. We introduce our pets and give a little history about them This could be their age, where they were born or even if they have any siblings. We generally finish with a question about our pets to see if the children remember us from the previous visit, (which of course they do). I’ll never forget one visit last year when we entered the library we unexpectedly encountered a service dog sitting with its handler. Maggie looked at the dog, the service dog looked at Maggie and I could have sworn I saw the slightest nod from each of the dogs, as if so say “good job!” Other than that there was no interaction between these animals during our visit. Service dogs provide support or some type of function that an individual with a disability cannot perform for him or herself. This differs tremendously then Maggie who is a therapy dog. The service dog sat quietly throughout our stay and once the visit was over got up and left quietly with the rest of the group. What I found interesting was that the children knew they could pet the therapy dogs but the service dog was off limits. They had been taught well.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

I've spoken about the training needed for Maggie to be certified as a therapy dog but my part of the training has been more of on the job training. I know I am never allowed to let go of Maggie's leash while we are in session but every situation can and has been different. While in a hospital setting we are allowed to move  a wheelchair or small table on wheels to gain access to a patient (as long as we replace them when finished) but if a patient needs some medical attention we tell the patient we will get a nurse.
In an elementary school setting I find my interaction with the children is more in correcting or explaining the proper way to handle an animal or in this case Maggie. Some of the students come from a home where there is already a pet so they are familiar with this but for those who do not, they need to be told not to pull a dog's tail, not to poke a dog in the eye, and some dogs do not like to be touched on their paws.
In a college setting the interaction with the students is mostly to help them de-stress during their mid-terms and finals. There are times they are not looking to interact with anyone but the animal so I leave them be while they pet and hug Maggie. Maggie has a good sense of what they need as well!

My biggest "Ah-Ha" moment came during a visit at a local hospital. I was walking down the hall and I heard a woman calling to me. She was saying "lady with the dog, lady with the dog wait for me"
I turned around to see a women in a white doctors coat. She said to me "I've had a really hard day, can I pet your dog?"
It was that moment I realized the scope of comfort that Maggie and I could bring.

I think about that every so often when I pass a doctor, a nurse or even another volunteer in the hallway. I always pause and with a smile ask if they would like to pet Maggie.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Maggie at the VA

One of our regular stops is the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Philadelphia or the VA as it is commonly known. Maggie and I have been visiting twice a month for the past three years. We meet our "friend" Sadie and her human partner Steve (they have been visiting much longer then we have). Maggie and Sadie have become known there and many of the residents have treats waiting for them. The VA is split up by departments and floors. We are assigned specific areas and are always accompanied by one of the recreation staff who are a delight to be around. They know their way around and many of the residents by name.
I will tell you the first time I signed up to visit the VA I did not know what it would be like and upon entering the hospital I had a rude awakening. Many of the residents are wheel chair bound with missing limbs. The smells can also be a little unsettling if you are not accustomed to a hospital setting. Needless to say after my first visit I walked out and said to myself I would not go back.
I slept on it and upon waking the next day questioned my motives of giving up so easily. With my life so blessed and easy compared to the residents of the VA why not push myself out of my comfort zone? Isn't that the purpose of giving back?

So I found myself signing up for the next visit. When I got to the front door I took a deep breath and put a smile on my face. Well the hour went by quickly. I focused on the smiles on the resident's faces when they saw Maggie. The joy took over any misgivings I might have had and three years later I have no regrets.

Each time I pull into the parking lot Maggie gets excited and I know it will be a great visit because we will bring a little joy to someone's day!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Becoming aTherapy Dog Handler

So I've been asked this question a few times "how did I become interested in becoming a therapy dog handler?"

About 13 years ago I was recovering in Abington Hospital from a surgical procedure. A gentleman popped his head in my room and asked if I was interested in a visit from a therapy dog. Not quite sure what he meant but loving dogs I responded "yes!" He walked in with a gorgeous Greyhound dog who promptly put his head on my bed so I could pet him. I remember my pain disappeared for the quick five minute visit. At the same time he explained his purpose. Therapy dogs provide comfort for the sick. After he left I promised myself if I ever had the opportunity I would find a way to give back to my community and become a therapy dog handler.

Fast forward many years I had just retired from my day job and was taking a writing course at a local school. We were going around the room introducing ourselves. A woman told us her dog had just passed a test and was now certified as a therapy dog. The memory from my encounter with therapy dog at the hospital from years ago came rushing forward in my mind. Wow, that was something I hadn't thought about for many years!  Maggie had just come into my life at that point but I made a decision that day that this would be my next goal.

Maggie would have to mature a bit as Goldendoodles tend to be a little high strung when they are young but with perseverance she did pass the test, and four years later we are going strong as a team!

Maggie the Therapy Dog

So what are the requirements for becoming a therapy dog? All dogs must pass a pet evaluation. The basic rules of sit, stay and come must be followed. They can not be frightened by sudden loud noises such as vacuum cleaners or other medical equipment. They have to be comfortable being handled by other people. They may not grab for treats, they may not jump on anyone  and especially no barking while they are working. When there is more then one animal on assignment at once they may greet each other before the session starts but once they are "working" their interaction is focused on the humans they came to visit. Once a dog is in the program they catch on fairly quickly and learn the routine.

Friday, May 20, 2016

So where have we been for the past six years? Maggie has grown and is a full fledged adult dog. She will turn seven next month. She has been keeping me busy. I trained her, had her tested and she is now certified as a therapy dog. Some might ask the purpose of a therapy dog. A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort to people in hospitals and nursing homes. They also help de-stress students. We love visiting different college campuses. Maggie is also part of the literacy program in the Philadelphia area where early readers have the opportunity to read to her in a non judge-mental environment. As an avid reader myself I enjoy being part of the process where children are learning to love to read. And what is there not to love by having a dog right by their side.
So I'm hoping to start back up with my blog and keep you up to date on Maggie's Therapy visits as well as her other activities.
Stay tuned!