The Wonders of Dog Therapy

Years ago, when we had Murphy and Bailey, I was making semi-annual trips to New Brunswick to visit my mom who was in a long care facility. On a lot of these trips I would take Bailey along with me because mom always loved these big dogs, so a visit from both her son and Bailey was indeed a high point. Bailey would accompany me to her room and we would all spend great afternoons together. During one of these visits, the attendants brought in a lady in a wheelchair to see the ‘big dog’. This lady was in her 90’s and had been at the facility for a couple of months and had yet to communicate to anyone. She was angry that she had to be there, so had refused to talk to anyone and kept to herself. The staff wheeled her into mom’s room and sat her on the chesterfield. Bailey, who had been lying on the other side of the room next to mom, immediately got up and went to see this lady. He laid his huge head on her lap, and waited for a scratch. The lady started petting his head and smiled. Within minutes she was talking to us all, telling us about dogs she had known in her life. The staff was shocked, and we were introduced to Dog Therapy.

This was our first experience with dog therapy even though it was not intended. Now years later we had 4 Newfs, I was retired and thoughts of dog therapy came back. We decided to attempt to have Molly and Rimshot officially certified in this field. We chose an organization by the name of T.P.O.C. (Therapeutic Paws of Canada) to perform the necessary testing. The day came and we all gathered in a gymnasium at a local church for the event. Along with Molly & Rimshot there were 6 other dogs also trying for this distinction. Dogs and handlers were lined up along one wall of the gym and one by one a dog and handler were called to the center for a specific test. They then would return to their spot along the wall to await the next one. Molly of course, would greet and lick every dog as she or they returned to the wall, as if to say ‘you did great’ or ‘I did great eh’?

There are 12 tests to determine if the dog is calm and friendly enough to fit in a hospital or nursing home environment, and to make sure they would get along with other dogs (no problem for Molly). Rimshot and Molly both passed and they started on their new career as Therapy Dogs.

Rimshot just before his retirement from therapy

For the past 3 years we have been working both with children with reading problems and with Alzheimer’s patients at a long care facility. The reading program is in conjunction with the local chapter of the Literacy Council and Rimshot is the founding dog in the ‘Read to Rimshot’ program. In this program children with reading problems are brought into a room with the dog and they sit on a pillow on the floor with the dog and read to him. Studies in the U.S. and Canada have shown that the fact the dog is non judgmental encourages the child to read. These studies also show that a stressed child shows a marked decrease in blood pressure simply by touching the dog while reading. We have had several parents come to us after the sessions and tell us that they have never seen their child read so well. Sessions are held weekly at the Literacy Council building during the after school hours.

Our work with Alzheimer’s patients and other seniors has been equally rewarding. For the past two years we have been visiting a local long term care facility by the name of Glen Stor Dun Lodge. Here we have met many enthusiastic residents and staff who have grown to know our dogs and eagerly anticipate their weekly visits. Both Molly and Rimshot seem to fit right into this environment. They both become noticeably excited as soon as they realize where they are going and eagerly pull us through the door into the facility. They have forged strong bonds with many of the residents who look forward to the ‘Dog Visits’. We have had several instances where caregivers have been rather surprised at the reactions of some. Residents who seldom communicate suddenly become quite talkative when the dogs are around. One lady with advanced Alzheimer’s spends most her day either in her room or in a sitting area with other residents with minimum amount of communication. However, when we bring one of the dogs to her floor, she becomes very active, lots of smiling and follows us everywhere we go, from room to room. When we leave the floor, we must have one of the staff with us so she doesn’t follow us onto the elevator.

Tyler is also starting to join us on our dog therapy excursions. He will tour the facility with me, meeting residents and staff and will explain all about the Newfoundland dog to those who are interested. This has shown him another side of the dogs. He now sees how they sense the “need” in some people and thus how they are able to benefit others.

Molly bringing smiles to those around her

Rimshot is now 11 years old, and is starting to feel his age, so we have had to cut back on his therapy work. He now is better suited to the reading program because he does not have to do any walking, but rather sits with the kids while they read. This is fine with him, and the children, most of whom have been reading to him for two or more years, love it when Rimshot shows up. They particularly like it when he falls asleep during the reading and snores. He snores quite loudly and the first time that happened we had people coming in from adjoining classrooms to see what the noise was. Ever since then, some of the kids read to him trying to get him to fall asleep, just to hear him snore. This is fine with us because we are always looking for ways to encourage reading, so it all works out.

Molly has picked up the slack with the Alzheimer work and Annie is in the process of being trained, so there is a lot more work to be done. Until recently, Seven had not been involved with therapy work because she has a strong aversion to elevators and tight, closed in spaces. However we have just started working at a new facility which has one level and wide spacious hallways. Seven is now in training and enjoying the work. In fact I was quite surprised when I took her in to this facility for her second visit. She fit in to the routine as if she had been doing it for years. She seemed to know exactly what she had to do. When I go into a room with Molly or Rim, we enter the room together and the dog will wait until I indicate that he/she is to greet the resident. They will then approach. Seven, however, confidently marches through that door into the room or meeting area and immediately makes her way to the resident, stops in front of them and either lays her head in their lap or looks up into their eyes as if saying “Well here I am, feel free to scratch these ears and shower me with attention.” During this second visit, she quickly became the favourite of everyone with whom she came in contact. She is going to be a very good ambassador of the breed in this therapy work.

The dogs still amaze us in many ways. At home or at play they most often are goofy and playful, but at therapy they take on a much more serious attitude as if they really do understand what is expected of them.

Molly loving the attention Annie’s first time

Molly doing her ‘thing’ making people happy

Rim catching a nap during the reading with Samantha

With therapy dogs it is most important to maintain a high degree of socialization. Therefore, as often as possible, we take one or two dogs with us when we go somewhere. One of the best environments for a dog to be socialized is at a crowded mall. The size and colour of the Newfoundland usually makes a bit hit with adults and children alike. This results in closed in, noisy situations which are most beneficial for a therapy dog. During one such visit to an indoor mall, I had Molly with me and we were standing in line at a Tim Horton’s for coffee. As usual, most everyone in the line was talking about and asking questions about this large beast. One gentleman, showed a keen interest in this therapy work we were doing and introduced himself as a managing editor of the city newspaper. He took my name and told me that he would like to do a human interest story about these Newfs and the work that they do.

Last week we were contacted by a reporter from the paper who conducted a 40 minute interview by telephone, then asked to meet me with the two certified Newfs at the mall for a photo shoot. The next afternoon I entered the mall with Molly and Rimshot and discovered that because of Spring Break, the mall was unusually packed with people. Having these two huge dogs therefore resulted in large crowds of adults, school aged kids and toddlers gathering around. Progress in walking from one place to another was extremely difficult. However, this was the ideal situation for the dogs and is exactly the reason we bring them to these places.

At one point I was standing, both dogs were lying on the floor, and we were surrounded by 20 to 30 of the curious. Tiny children were sitting on the floor, dwarfed by the huge dogs and everyone with a smile on their face. Through the crowd I noticed a fellow with a camera bending and twisting in all types of contorted positions taking picture after picture, also with a smile on his face. This was the photographer, who obviously had no problem in locating me in the mall. The session lasted for about 45 minutes, many photos were taken and the children spent much of the time with wide smiles on their faces. The article appeared the next day in the paper, and we had made page two. The next weekend at our regularly scheduled visit to the retirement home, almost everyone we met had seen the article and Molly was received as a star.

Bonnie with Samantha reading to Rimshot Corey reading to an interested Rimshot

It must be apparent from reading this blog that it is a challenge to own four Newfoundland dogs. Their lifespan is not as long as that of the smaller breeds, so the sorrow of losing one seems to come quickly, and then there are the slime and shedding factors, which can be daunting. Then why do we endure all this to have these dogs? The reason is simply because they give so much while they are with us. Complete devotion and loyalty to their owners is an amazing quality for any dog or other animal. These characteristics just happen to be inherent in the Newfoundland . Although gentleness, caring and sensitivity to seniors and small children is a quality present in some other breeds, we have found that they are common in Newfoundlands. There has never been a moment when we have regretted our decision to involve them in our life and spend our time among the giants.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. My father would have loved having one of your pups visit him in his nursing home. He loved dogs and this breed would have brought so much joy. I do not believe he ever got to see one in his life. You are doing an incredible service for others.

    Reply

  2. My Newf Mia just past the first phase of St John’s Ambulance Therapy dog testing. She will start her supervised visits in the next week or so.

    Reply

  3. Posted by kelly on July 14, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I work at a long term care facility, i remember the first time a newf came to visit- it was amazing the reaction from the residents. I know how much they enjoy the visits. My “Newf” is now four weeks old, and will be joining our family next month, i’m hoping to be able to join some kind of dog therapy with her

    Reply

  4. The last time one of us was in the hospital, we borrowed a friend’s therapy dog’s vest and put it on the newf for daily treks to the rehab hospital. The thing barely fit… kind of looked more like a scarf. Anyway, daily trips to the hospital as a pseudo therapy dog brought out the smiles on people who had otherwise lost hope. A newf is big enough to hug, can pull folks around in their wheelchairs, and some will even fetch (not this one). I had a newf who, when we visited a local hospice, had this habit of trying to lick the catheter bags and tubes… she bit through one once, and we were asked to leave. The guy in the bed, who was near death from a variety of ailments associated with the AIDS virus, could not stop laughing. I heard later that he died that day, and shortly beforehand had asked if “that big bear” was coming back soon. I love newfs for the joy and wonder they bring to everyone.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Gloria on September 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    My two Newfs, Brogan and Gracie have been volunteers with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program in Nova Scotia for over 6 years. They now have over 550 hours of service and your blog reminds me of many rewarding visits we have shared. I was already to go on one visit this summer when Brogan decided to beeline around the SUV and take a detour straight into the lake for a swim! She was closely followed by Gracie so needless to say, we didn’t make our visit that day with two soggy dogs! Keep up the great work!

    Reply

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