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K9 Connection: The Health Benefits of Therapy Dogs

4/18/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Cathy Dodgen

I have worked with dogs (and their people) in a variety of venues for more than thirty years and I remain amazed at the profound and positive impact they can have on the lives of others. 

For nearly a decade, I have been associated with a local therapy dog group known as K9 Connection Therapy Dogs.  Though strictly a volunteer organization, our motto is "Sharing the love of our dogs with others" which we strive to do - in a safe, ethical and professional manner - as often and in as many situations as practicable.  In recent years there have been studies conducted that have demonstrated just how powerful and positive the canine/human bond can be. While it's nice to have that documentation, K9 Connection therapy teams are fortunate enough to experience it every time we visit with our furry partners.

The late oncologist, Dr. Mark Ellis, challenged the founding members of K9 Connection to start a therapy dog program in his oncology practice. One of the group's earliest success stories was a patient who arrived at her appointment in an extremely anxious state. Her blood pressure was too high to administer the chemotherapy, so she was moved to a quiet place in the office and allowed to visit with one of the therapy dogs. Ultimately, her blood pressure dropped and her chemotherapy was administered.  Dr. Ellis highlighted the advantages of therapy dog/patient interactions and was a strong and outspoken supporter of the group - eventually assisting in the establishment of a program at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Hospital.

One evening, I had just finished visiting patients at the hospital with my Jack Russell, Panda, and we were asked to return to the Emergency Room.  There we found a young, emotionally challenged child with a sizeable gash on his leg. He would not allow medical personnel to touch him - responding with kicking and screaming when approached.  Luckily he liked dogs, and Panda adores children, so the two of them bonded in such a way that he eventually allowed the staff to administer medications, remove the necessary clothing, and numb the leg in anticipation of treating the wound while he hugged, petted and fed Panda treats.  The physician expressed his amazement at the ability of the dog to relax and engage the child sufficiently such that the child did not have to be physically restrained - thus minimizing stress for the child, his family and hospital staff. 

Every working K9 Connection member has similar stories regarding ways in which our therapy dogs continue to improve the lives of others.  Therapy dogs brighten the lives of individuals who may be shut- ins at the various retirement centers and who eagerly await scheduled visitation days.  They help entertain and relax children awaiting outpatient surgery. Facility staffers embrace the dogs as well, saying that the dogs provide a welcome break in what is often an otherwise stressful workday.

Several K9 Connection teams were invited to volunteer at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center in the weeks following 9/11.  Ramona Underwood, one of K9 Connection's founding members, recalls one woman -- the wife of one of the pilots who died -- stroked her therapy dog, Miss Katie, and tearfully said that this was something she could do with her husband's dog in his memory.  Her sister mentioned to Ramona that it was the first positive words and sense of hope she had seen from her sister since the tragic loss of her husband.

We take the privacy of those with whom we visit very seriously and are bound by HIPAA rules and regulations.  We approach our therapy work in a professional and ethical manner and our goal continues to be sharing the wonderful and unconditional love of our canine partners.

K9 Connection is privileged to have a variety of visitation programs in the Williamsburg area. Some examples are:

  • Visitation at many of the area's retirement homes
  • "Paws to Read" at the Williamsburg Regional Library
  • One-on-one reading programs as well as a recent program involving children with challenges in the local schools
  • Visitation at oncology practices and physical therapy programs
  • A specialized program at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Hospital. 

Wondering if you and your dog are cut out for pet therapy work? We counsel new and prospective teams that the dog and handler must both enjoy the work. Our teams are tested and certified by the Delta Society Pet Partners program - a national organization requiring both an online course and a practical team skills test. Maintaining certification requires that the skills assessment be repeated every two years.

K9 Connection offers free prospective team "pre evaluations" (1 dog/1 handler) followed by weekly classes twice yearly. The pre evaluation process is designed to identify exceptional prospective therapy dog teams. We look for happy and outgoing dogs with reliable obedience skills in the face of a variety of distractions, and who will gladly welcome handling all over and a big hug from a total stranger (this has proven to be a deal breaker for many dogs). We also look for dogs that are immediately comfortable in new surroundings and in close proximity with other dogs. Even dogs that truly love and are well suited for therapy work go home exhausted after visitation.  Asking a dog who may be only marginally comfortable interacting with strangers is unfairly stressful to the dog, and could prove to be a safety issue for those visiting.

Interestingly enough, the vast majority of dogs do not seem to be genetically "hardwired" for therapy work.  Optimal therapy dogs are atypical as they do not possess the typical self-preservation (fight or flight) instincts.  Many of the dogs that we evaluate are wonderful pets and companions, but are not totally comfortable with confrontational challenges of the sort experienced in the course of therapy work.

For more information regarding therapy dogs in general and K9 Connection Therapy Dogs more specifically, feel free to check out our newly refurbished website at www.k9connectionwmbg.org and Delta Society Pet Partners at www.deltasociety.org.

Cathy Dodgen has been involved with a wide variety of canine endeavors in the last thirtyyears including competition obedience and agility, instructing, evaluating, and handling for volunteer K9 Search & Rescue, dog rescue and fostering / behavioral rehabilitation, andtherapy dog training and participation.

Through her canine consulting business, Sage Advice Pet Services (www.sageadvicepetservices.com) , Cathy provides canine training and behavioral rehabilitation utilizing the power of positive reinforcement and relationship focused methodologies.  Her goal is the creation of partnerships built on mutual trust and cooperation for dogs and the people they love.  She brings these same principles to her instruction of prospective Delta Pet Partners therapy dog teams for K9 Connection Therapy Dogs.

Her currently active therapy dogs are the aforementioned Jack Russell Terrier, Panda, and a Whippet, Tucker. She has a young Jack Russell, Dexter - himself a survivor of domestic abuse  - currently in training as a future therapy partner.

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