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Dog therapy program benefits both ends of the leash

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August 23rd, 2010
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Social worker Jessica Perry never thought she would take a backseat to her 3-year-old chocolate lab mix, Captain, until she started bringing him to work with her two years ago. It s become apparent that most people come to see him, not me, says Perry, who works at Oak Crest. Everyone always remembers him. Around the community I m simply known as Captain s mom! Perry and Captain are part of the PAWS program (Pets at Work=Smiles) at Oak Crest. The five-year-old program gives Oak Crest employees the opportunity to bring their pets to work as therapy animals, visiting with the residents of Renaissance Gardens, the community s extended-care neighborhood. The residents of Renaissance Gardens love the pets, says Program Manager Nicole Rader. If someone is having a bad day, the ability to visit and pet a dog is calming. The program benefits the staff as well; there s something about having pets around, especially dogs, that makes it a relaxed environment. The Oak Crest PAWS program was designed with the help of the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization that serves to enrichpeople s lives through relationships with therapy animals. They were a great resource for us, says Rader. They were able to help with the logistics of starting the PAWS program and gave us the guidance we needed on how to incorporate animals into our community on a regular basis. We currently have six staff members who bring their dogs to work.

Model citizens

Therapy dogs are not a new idea. Pets have been helping humans for decades. Many experts believe that dogs like Captain improve health by lowering stress, lowering blood pressure, and encouraging exercise. Research is now showing that pets not only help you stay healthy, but they can also aid in a faster recovery from surgery and illnesses. Unlike service dogs that undergo rigorous training to assist the blind and people with disabilities, the therapy dogs at Oak Crest are only required to pass the equivalent of a good citizen s test before setting paw in the community. We basically look to see how they will act around different people, says Rader. Hyper dogs don t usually work very well. We re really looking for dogs that have a more laid back, easygoing personality. Perry says she knew right off the bat that Captain, a rescue, would be a good fit for the PAWS program because he has always followed commands well and is extremely calm and affectionate. He knows how to sit, stay, paw, and lie down, says Perry. He looks you right in the eye when you speak to him, almost like he understands every word you say. When the residents at Renaissance Gardens see him, their faces light up and they often tell me stories of pets that they have had over the years.

Paw power

According to Renaissance Gardens Senior Administrator Margaret Stewart, those who participate in the PAWS program enhance the lives of everyone they encounter. The pets bring smiles to the faces of the residents and a companionship and comfort to everyone they come in contact with, says Stewart, who brings her four-year-old Yorkie, Dee Dee, to work twice a week. The ability to bring their pets to work with them gives our staff the opportunity to have a different, more personal kind of relationship with the residents at Renaissance Gardens, says Stewart. Having visitors whether it s friends, children, family, or pets makes this feel more like home for our residents, and that s what matters most. 

Could your dog be a therapy dog?

Do you think Fido has what it takes to be a therapy dog? According to the Delta Society, the most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. See if your dog has these essential traits:

  • Accepts friendly strangers
  • Sits politely for petting (ability to be touched all over including ears, tail, feet)
  • Is well-groomed and up-to-date on vaccinations
  • Can focus and remain calm in the event of distractions, crowds, or equipment
  • Follows sit, down, and come commands on cue
  • Is good around other animals

If you think your dog would be a good candidate for therapy work, check out these organizations to help you get started: American Kennel Club www.akc.org Delta Society www.deltasociety.org Therapy Dogs International www.tdi-dog.org

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