Those of us who love dogs know what our furry friends can do for us. They get us outside for long walks. They greet us at the door when we come home from work. Even petting your pooch for 15 minutes can lower your blood pressure by 10%.
At St. Andrew’s Church in Mahtomedi, therapy dogs in training and their handlers are taught to put their best paw forward and use their skills to help those who most need the unconditional love of a dog.
Kathryn Monroe first began leading Animal Angels in 2000. After moving to Mahtomedi, she became involved at St. Andrew’s and expressed her dream of operating a dog therapy class. Ever since, Monroe has been holding 10- to 12-week classes to train willing dogs and handlers.
With a background in adult education with an emphasis on human and animal relationships, Monroe knows that the benefit of spending time with a dog is nothing new.
“The idea of animals as healers goes back to Hippocrates, whose name means horsepower. In the 1940s the Red Cross had animals to help men when they returned from war, and in 1965 we got statistical evidence that petting a dog can reduce blood pressure and put brainwaves in a meditative state,” says Monroe.
According to Monroe, it’s the historically invisible people of our world who can benefit most from the healing nature of animals. Once the therapy dogs get approval to visit, they typically will visit memory care units, schools, veterans homes and assisted living and hospice facilities.
But before they are ready to visit those in need, the dogs and their handlers need to jump through a few hoops.
Much of the time, the real learning is happening with the human students in the class. The handlers learn how to teach their dogs to approach new people and ignore distractions that may be in some of the facilities they visit.
During the class, John Wygant (aka the “treat guy” to the pups) simulates patients with wheelchairs or crutches while Monroe walks around with an aspirator so the dogs learn to remain undistracted by the sights and sounds of a typical care facility.
“There are a lot of sounds and even smells that can be distracting for the dogs,” Monroe explained, as she squeezed an aspirator through the group of dogs.
The dogs and their handlers also practice how to approach someone who is getting a visit from a therapy dog. First, the handler begins by asking for permission to come and visit. The conversation then turns to the person receiving the visit, all while the dogs learn to greet that person on their level, whether the person is sitting in a wheelchair or lying in bed.
The dogs are gearing up for their test on Dec. 11, which will give them eligibility for approval of personal liability insurance for visiting. If the dogs pass, Therapy Dogs International will allow them to be registered.
One of the class’s handlers, Joanne Nicols, explained that the terms “therapy dog” and “service dog” can often get confused. “Service dogs tend to learn specific skills for one person. For example, a dog that works with someone who diabetic is trained to alert a person to take their medication.”
The therapy dogs at Animal Angels are taught to go up to a variety of people with less-specialized needs.
While the dogs need their approval, their handlers also require completion of a variety of background checks, including for liability insurance, as well as credit checks when they begin as volunteers.
But those requirements don’t determine the handlers at Animal Angels. Many of the handlers have had more than one dog go through the program just for the joy it brings both the handlers and the dogs to take care of their community.
“I was trying to figure out how to give back to the community. Now that my own mom is in memory care, it means even more to give back. I work full time and have a family, and I still have time for service. It’s been a great combination,” says Tami Zappa.
It doesn’t matter what kind of dog it is. Any dog can be a therapy dog. What makes these pups special is the way they serve as a canine icebreaker to comfort those in need.