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Therapy Dogs Can Have Profound Impact on Nursing Home Residents

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In Recognition of National Volunteer Week : Man’s Best Friend

Written By: Josephine Reviello, Case Manager

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Hannah Bear

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Hannah Bear enjoying her time with residents

National Volunteer Week is about recognizing those who demonstrate imaginative ways to engage in their communities – dogs included.  “Man’s Best Friend”….we’ve all heard this catchphrase and know it refers to dogs. The popularization of the phrase is actually said to have come from an attorney, George Graham Vest. In 1870, Vest was in the courtroom representing a farmer who was suing for damages after his dog “Old Drum” was shot by a neighbor. Toward the closing of the trial, Mr. Vest said, “A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.”  And later, the phrase shortened to “man’s best friend”.  Vest won the case and also won its appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court. A statue of the dog stands in front of the Warrensburg, Missouri courthouse.

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Residents always have a smile on their faces

It’s almost impossible to deny the loyalty of dogs to their owners. The relationship between humans and dogs goes back tens of thousands of years. Today, more than ever, dogs perform such a wide variety of important roles for humans: hunting, herding, guarding, protection, sniffing out explosives & drugs, finding missing persons, service dogs for the blind or epileptic, companionship, healing, etc. . One role I want to focus on is the use of dogs for therapy in clinical settings, particularly the nursing home.

The concept of Pet Therapy was developed over 30 years ago by a volunteer organization called Therapy Dogs International. Today, it continues to grow in recognition as a positive addition to the healing process for those who are ill. Visits from Therapy Dogs have shown an increased happiness, calmness and overall emotional well-being. And they provide a break from the daily routine of illness and loneliness for residents, staff and visitors. Therapy dogs visit with the sick and elderly, sometimes simply sitting by the person’s side and patiently being petted. Facility residents or patients may walk therapy dogs, play with them, feed them or groom them. Some therapy dogs are trained to sit quietly and attentively while children read to them. Many therapy dogs have their own disabilities or limitations that serve as inspiration to humans with disabilities.

My husband and I adopted Hannah Bear, an Old English Sheepdog, 2 1/2 years ago. Since I have always had a passion to work with elderly and I love dogs, I wanted to have a Therapy Dog to visit residents in nursing homes. At 3 months old, Hannah Bear arrived at the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton International Airport from an Alpaca farm in Mississippi (her parents were Alpaca herders). Shortly after she came home with us, we made arrangements for obedience training.

She was not able to be tested and evaluated by a Certified Therapy Dog International (TDI) Evaluator until she was at least 1 year old. To belong to the TDI as a Therapy Dog she had to pass a TDI temperament evaluation and pass a test that involved basic obedience and observing her behavior around people, other dogs, crowds, loud noises (alarms, bells, etc.), people in service equipment (wheelchairs, walkers, etc.). We spent a lot of time in obedience training with Hannah Bear but she was a natural when it came to loving people and other dogs, since she has such a calm and submissive demeanor. There isn’t an aggressive bone in her body. She just loves people!

We take Hannah Bear every weekend to visit residents in nursing homes and personal care homes. She knows her purpose in life and she loves it! And the Residents love her! It is heartwarming to see the profound affect she has on them – their faces light up when they see her coming down the hall or walking into their room. Hannah Bear is like an anecdote to their depression and loneliness. Most of these people can’t leave the facility and they look forward to Hannah Bear’s visits, often asking when she will return.

Therapy Dogs elicit responses from nursing home residents who are typically withdrawn and limited in their abilities. Touching the fur on the back of a dog and talking to the dog is the most popular interaction. It promotes display of affection, interaction, and a positive change in self-esteem. Therapy Dogs have contributed significantly over the years in bringing warmth and joy to residents of nursing homes. And Hannah Bear will continue as a Therapy Dog for many years to come, fulfilling her purpose in bringing life to those who have lost their inspiration to live.

Read more about Josephine’s work as a Case Manager at Marshall Parker