NEW ULM The next time you have a visit to a doctor or a psychiatrist, you may receive an unusual prescription: get a dog.
Over the last two decades, the use of therapy dogs has been expanding. Volunteer organizations are gaining more groups that use them and health professionals are warming to the idea of using them in hospitals and nursing homes.
A therapy dog is one type of animal that can be used in animal-assisted therapy. Animal-assisted therapy is a method of therapy that incorporates an animal into into a person's care because of the animal's positive, calming effects on the person. The method is designed to improve the physical, mental and cognitive functions of patients, as well as improve educational and motivational effectiveness. The use of animals can have a variety of positives effects, including lowering blood pressure, decreasing depression and reducing anxiety.
Staff photo by Josh Moniz
Karan Whitmyer with her dog Maddie and Linda Wiesner with her dog Bailey have been with Puppy Love since 2001. They said their favorite part about the organization is bring happiness to others.
The genesis of the concept has some roots in Minnesota history. During WWII, Corporal William Wynne, a U.S. soldier, was recovering from his injuries in an Army Hospital in the Philippines. His friends wanted to cheer him up, so they brought him Smokey, his Yorkshire Terrier. Wynne had purchased the dog during the war and took it with him wherever he could. The dog became popular with other wounded soldiers in the hospital. The Commanding Officer of the Hospital, Dr. Charles Mayo of the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, noticed the dog's popularity and positive effects on the patients. He decided to start taking Smokey with him on his rounds of the hospital. Smokey went on to be uysed as a therapy dog for the next 12 years. Smokey's activities were one of the starting points for the entire therapy animal concept.
Currently, a variety of therapy animal organizations operates in the United States. One with a branch in Minnesota is Therapy Dogs Incorporated (TDInc.). It is national non-profit volunteer organization that organizes registration, support and insurance for participating therapy dogs groups. The organization's membership contains over 12,000 handlers and over 14,000 dogs.
The branch of TDInc. that operates in the New Ulm and Mankato area is Puppy Love Therapy Dogs, Inc. It currently has approximately nine handlers with one dog each.
Groups in TDInc., like Puppy Love, take their dogs to visit schools, hospitals and nursing homes. At the facilities, the dogs perform tricks before spending time visiting with the occupants or patients in the building. Puppy Love visits an average of two to eight facilities each year.
In addition to visitation, some TDInc. groups will bring dogs to assist children in reading programs or to help comfort children participating in courtroom trials.
"It's the number one, absolute best thing you can do with your dog," said Billie Smith, administrative manager of TDInc., "You get to spend quality time with your pet and help people that need someone to come and brighten their day."
A major service that TDInc. provides is certification that the dogs is an ideal candidates for human interaction, as well as insurance coverage to the certified members.
Cameron Raether, director and treasurer of Puppy Love, said that the certification and insurance that TDInc. provides goes a long way in helping therapy dog volunteer groups. He said that it makes hospitals and other institutions feel comfortable with allowing dogs on the premise.
"They can feel like they're safe and they had their shots," said Raether.
Raether noted that the certification progress is rigorous and not every dog is shown to be suited for the position of therapy dog.
"You have to be sure that the dog is comfortable being petted and comfortable having people put their hands near its face or hindquarters. Dogs not suited to be therapy dogs will be sensitive about these areas and could nip someone in response," said Raether, "Also, some of the people at the nursing homes have tennis balls on the legs of their walkers. You got to make sure that the dog isn't going to try to retrieve those balls, especially when someone is using them."
Smith said that she has definitely seen a big increase in the number of people using therapy dogs across the country in the last few years. She attributes the growth to a variety of sources. One she mentioned was that more psychiatrists and doctors are keeping a therapy dog in their building so that it is available to patients. Another reason she noted was the increased use of therapy animals to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, she said that therapy dog use is expanding because people are becoming more aware of the variety of other services the dogs can provide. One example she gave was the use of dogs with children with reading problems. She said the children would practice reading to the dog as if the dog was listening to the story. She explained that children that underwent this process were shown to have an increase in their reading and retention abilities.
"I've been at it for 19 years and it amazes me how many new venues open each year," said Smith, "We see people contacting us to set up their own therapy dog group all the time, usually after they read about the program in the paper."
Another aspect to volunteering with a therapy dog is the hard work involved to provide the service. Raether said that a visit to a hospital or nursing home can physically and mentally exhaust a dog and its handler. In one month, Puppy Love members can visit with over 500 people in over 30 locations. Volunteers with TDInc. and Puppy Love are unpaid, so visits must be scheduled around people's work and family. Raether said that his group prefers to bring and average of four to seven dogs to an event, so that the work of interacting with patients is spread among all of the dogs. He said that this means a great deal of coordination is required in order to accommodate everyone's schedule. Accompanying that difficult is the extensive number of miles volunteers must travel to visit people that have requested their services. Raether said that the group, even though it primarily operates in southern Minnesota, averages a total of 4,000 to 5,000 miles in travel each year. Finally, another challenge he detailed is maintain a sufficient number of members and dogs to perform a successful visitation. He explained that when a therapy dog dies of old ages or in an accident, the owner simply buying another dogs does not necessarily fix the problem.
"You can't just grab a dog and jump into it. There is no guarantee your dog is suited to do this work," said Raether, "It's no one's fault. It's just the nature of the dog."
Additionally, Raether explained that not every volunteer that loses a dog wants to volunteer again or get another dog. He explained that sometimes therapy dog groups will shut-down because of insufficient membership.
"What happens is most of the dogs eventually pass on and there's no one to keep it going," said Raether.
Despite the hard work, Raether said the volunteering is always worth it.
"We don't have to sell our program to people," said Raether, "People just see how positive it is for the people we visit."
He pointed out that when the group visits, the people at the facility have a decrease in blood pressure and an improvement in overall mental health.
"When we visit Alzheimer's patients, you see an improvement in their mood or focus," said Raether, "We have had nurses tell us after a visit that it was the first time they have seen some of the patients smile or come out of their rooms."
Raether also mentioned that they would play 40s swing music, which helps to transfer some patients in nursing homes to remember happier times in their lives.
"You're really doing this because, for the people we visit, it brightens up their day," said Raether, "Nursing homes can be difficult, so it's nice to bring them some happiness."
Rather explained that the volunteers join the group simply to help others. He said that he often jokes that volunteering with Puppy Love earns people angel points. He explained that it was a jokey way of saying people will be commended for their good deeds in Heaven.
"You wouldn't want to get to the Pearly Gates and realize you need one more point," said Raether.
Additionally, Raether explained that the main reason people participated in Puppy Love was because it was just fun to do.
"This is absolutely a hobby. We're pretty light-hearted about it," said Raether, "If it's not fun or we're not helping people, we're not gonna do it."
New Ulm Members
Two members of the Puppy Love group live right here in New Ulm.
Linda Wiesner and Karan Whitmyer have been working with Puppy Love since it started in 2001. Their dogs, Maddie and Bailey, have travelled with them for nearly 550 visits.
They said the joined the organization after getting to know the core original group at dog obedience classes. They helped form the organization because they wanted to volunteer with their dogs, but also wanted to bring the dogs to schools.
Wiesner and Whitmyer are both teachers that teach at Cathedral Middle School.
"We're not in it for any reward," said Whitmyer.
Wiesner concurred with Whitmyer.
"It's the smiles on the faces of the people that make it worth it," said Wiesner.
When asked about their favorite memory with Puppy Love, Whitmyer recited one that they both witnessed.
She explained that the group was visiting St. John's Lutheran in Springfield. They were visiting in the Alzheimer's unit and one man had recently been admitted. She explained the man was sitting comatose in a chair, when Maddie walked up to him.
"He moved his hand down as if to reach for the dog. The nurses went crazy, because this was the first reaction they had seen out of the guy," said Whitmyer.
She explained that the rewards of helping others is what made the program worth it.
"It might sound cheesy what we do, but it's the little things that make a difference," said Whitmyer.
(Josh Moniz can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)