Photo and story by Jeanne Massey, The Hornell Spectator, January 20, 2002
There's a reason dogs have been called man's best friend. Not only have dogs served people by guarding them and their property or helping pull heavy loads, but they also provide physical and mental health benefits as well. It has been shown that petting and talking with a dog can lower people's blood pressure, relieve stress, and ease depression.
The same is true with almost any animal. Watching fish swim in a doctor's or dentist's waiting room not only helps pass the time, it also reduces some of the stress of the visit. People in long-term care facilities find their day brightened by handling a small, cuddly animal. Yet dogs seem to be used in more health-care situations than almost any other animal. Perhaps it's because they can be reliably trained and are small enough to be used in any setting.
Therapy dogs are being used in two area schools. They have undergone extensive training and testing to be sure they have the kind of easygoing personality that will allow them to get along happily in any situation.
"How can he work here?" asks a student who sees Scott Miller's dog, Captain, in the hall at Canisteo Central School for the first time. "He's going to help me do therapy with kids," says Miller. "I want to do therapy," the student exclaims. When asked what the dog can do, Miller says, "He can go to schools and hospitals and nursing homes and just be friendly."
Miller, Canisteo's school Social Worker, says his job is "to work with kids who are having emotional problems that interfere with school." He wants them to be successful; he works with families to help students succeed both at home and at school. His dog is Mariner's Captain Denali, a registered Newfoundland who is a Canadian National Champion and is just a few points away from being an AKC champion. He is Miller's first certified therapy dog. Miller has had the 4-year-old dog for the last two years. They just went through Therapy Dogs International, Inc., training and passed the test last summer. "It's new to me," he said.
He first took Captain to school Thanksgiving week when the faculty held meetings. "He was a smash."
Miller hopes Captain will "help build bridges with kids who would never come see me." Bridge building was evident as Miller walked Captain through the halls of the school for the first time Friday. Students swarmed all over the 160-pound Captain, wanting to pet the lovable giant.
"You can see how well it works," Miller said. "Somehow dogs break walls down quickly. Then I can do a better job as a Social Worker here."
Captain's breeder [Sue Auger] encouraged Miller to train Captain as a therapy dog. "He's so warm and empathic," Miller said. The dog recognizes when Miller has had a bad day or is not feeling well and sticks with him.
Friday was Captain's first day at school, and Miller could see the dog becoming stressed because of the new surroundings and new people. Something people don't realize is that the dogs have feelings, too, and the handler of a therapy dog has to be aware of how the dog is coping with a situation.
"My experience with dogs is just from walking down the street with them. People who wouldn't approach you, approach you" when you have a dog, Miller said. His big, lovable dog has the potential to help a lot of children.
"Are you taking the dog for a walk again?" a student asks.
Rose II Freedom, a teacher at Prattsburgh Central School, has used a team of therapy dogs for many years, two litter mates, yellow Labrador Retrievers, now 12-years-old. Jake died last Monday, and Bruno returned to school Tuesday to keep him from being lonely without Jake.
The dogs had been retired since 1997. Over the last six months, she could see Jake was failing. When he died Monday, "I was prepared," she said. "Because of my concern for Bruno's sense of loss, not to mention my own," she got the superintendent's permission to reinstate Bruno as an official therapy dog until he can't serve any more.
She said the high school kids came back to see him when they heard he was there. They younger students are starting all over.
The speech teacher brought in a student who had difficulty articulating. The student could call the dog by name and give it a command, but the dog didn't understand. On the third try, the student clearly said, "Bruno, sit." Freedom said, "He sat, and we all cheered."
"And those are the little miracles."
"I was quite skeptical at the beginning," Freedom said, about using dogs in the classroom, but experience has changed her mind. "The benefits certainly outweigh any amount of work." And it is lots of work. She has to keep the dog spanking clean. As she teaches the kids how to brush his teeth, she said it reinforces the idea of brushing their own teeth. She has videos on pet care, being kind to each other, being a good friend.
"If you can see good in this, you can apply it to any situation," she contends: math, English, science, nearly any subject.
Her class is studying Afghanistan, and they have a map and picture on the wall. Freedom said, "That Afghan girl in the picture is Bruno." She's someone else who can give and receive love, the same as the dog can.
Freedom works through the International Delta Society program, which gives initial certification and annual re-testing, working with animals on a regular basis to check their ability to adjust to almost any situation, so the animal can handle it. "You really have to have a good sound animal and good training behind him."
The training doesn't end, though. "The training is something that goes on and on with the dogs and the owner-trainers."
She emphasizes that the needs of the animal as well as of the children have to be recognized. The dogs will get stepped on, but they will not bite. They will get stressed. "What's therapeutic for the people is not necessarily therapeutic for the dog," she said. Part of her training is to recognize when Bruno has had enough and needs a rest.
The kids love having Bruno in the classroom. They take turns helping with his daily care: walking, grooming, brushing his teeth, and giving him fresh water and dog biscuits. "I try to get them to use their own experiences and all kinds of opportunities to draw from them information that would help them grow emotionally... It doesn't hurt anything at all to have an animal in the room that gives unconditional acceptance and love."
And through their jobs, the students learn big lessons about responsibility, caring, and sharing.
One student wrote of how Bruno likes to hear the phrase, "good dog," and then carried the thought further to say that people, too, appreciate hearing good things.
Freedom recognizes that dogs don't always work miracles. "This doesn't make it all better, but it sure doesn't hurt." In her 7-1/2 years of working in animal assisted therapy, she said she has "helped improve the educational environment for children I work with by adding an element of unconditional acceptance, to do for the child something I couldn't do."
"I couldn't always be there to hear every repetition of spelling words... The dogs listened to every word... and gave unconditional acceptance in return."
"I saw a child who had attention deficit disorder become more calm. I saw a child who had emotional difficulties lie down beside the dog and whisper things in his ear, things I'd never hear, and then rise up ready to learn. Their self esteem really soared."
"While we're here, we'll do the best we can doing things we think we're good at."