Therapy, Service and Assistance Dogs
Dogs have been helping man for centuries. The first written mention of an assistance dog was in the 1700s. Alphabet books for children illustrated the letter B with a Blind man, led by a dog. During the first World War, guide dog training schools were established in an effort to aid soldiers who were blinded during battle. Service work expanded in the twentieth century, to include hearing aid dogs and physical assistance dogs.
Formal therapy dog work began in the United States in the 1970s. It started rather casually, thanks to people like the chaplain in New Jersey who brought his golden retriever along as he made his rounds through the hospital wards. Staff workers noticed that the chaplain evoked an extremely positive response in the patients he visited. But they saw it wasnt the chaplain who brought smiles to the patients faces; it was the dog. Bit by bit, other informal visitations began to break down the no dogs taboo. One of the first institutions to officially open its doors to dogs was the Mayo Clinic, and one of its first canine volunteers was a Newfoundland.
Many documented studies show that therapy dogs reduce stress and lower a persons blood pressure. They also raise the patients spirits, a critical element in getting well. Over the years, therapy dogs of all breeds have been welcomed in more and more hospitals and care facilities across the country. But it is hard to imagine a breed more ideally suited for this work than a Newfoundland.
Every familys Newfoundland is a therapy, assistance or service dog to some extent. When you come home after a particularly dreadful day at work, that Newf lays his head on your knee and tells you itll be better soon. When a pair of balled-up socks falls out of the overloaded hamper you are carrying up the stairs, that Newf will pick them up and bring them to you. When your arthritis flares up and you cant hoist yourself out of the couch, that Newfoundland will hold rock-still, letting you grab on and pull yourself to your feet.
However, there are Newfoundlands who take that genetic calling to a much higher level. They serve in hospitals or schools, care facilities or nursing homes. They visit elementary schools, libraries, museums and summer camps, and the entertaining programs they present demonstrate their helpful skills to eager audiences. Sweetbay dogs have served in these capacities from the beginning. Whether their deeds are officially recognized* or performed more privately, their contribution is enormous, and we would like to recognize them here.
*In 2011, the American Kennel Club launched a program to recognize the dogs who serve in approved therapy programs. Dogs meeting the AKCs requirements earn an official AKC title, and may use the initials THD after their name.
Brett and Rachael
Sweetbays Kilimanjaro THD, NF-8223, EL-2200 and
Sweetbays Jett THD
Jet and Jaro
Brett, Rachael and their four
children added a cute fluffy Newfoundland puppy to their family
in May of 2002. He was eight weeks old, and they named him Jaro.
Four months later, Brett and Rachael were eating lunch at home
and idly watching television when a public service announcement
came on, introducing a local therapy animal organization. Brett
snapped to attention, riveted. And the more he heard, the better
it sounded. Volunteering would mean he could help his own
community, and spend meaningful time with his puppy.
A bit of research led Brett to I.T.A. (Intermountain Therapy Animals), based in Salt Lake City. Brett says the decision to call I.T.A. was one of the most momentous actions of his life. It was pure chance that Brett caught that brief television segment, but Bretts interest became total commitment.
As Brett looked deeper into therapy work, he discovered that he and Jaro already had accomplished some of the groundwork. Jaro had completed a puppy obedience class, was halfway through advanced training, and was poised to earn his Canine Good Citizen certificate. In addition, everyone who met Jaro commented on his love for people. He responded to everyone, and everyone responded to Jaro. He was a people magnet, and he accepted the wide range of human actions calmly and with quiet pleasure. That benevolent nature was an essential asset in therapy work.
After noting I.T.A.s requirements, Brett and Jaro brushed up their skills and passed the rigorous tests to become a Pet Partner Team. Jaro began working with I.T.A. in May of 2003. Bretts wife Rachael had also become a certified Pet Partner, accompanying Brett and Jaro, or taking Jaro on her own if Brett was unavailable. During his nine years of service, Jaro happily shared his presence and his skills with an estimated 7000 patients, family, staff, and students, in a variety of facilities far too numerous to describe.
Roughly midway in Jaros career, a second Newfoundland joined the Beasley household. In 2007, Jett joined his big brother and began making visitations. The staff members at the hospitals and schools always brightened when they spotted the Beasley Boys arriving for their sessions. As for the patients, the two Newfs were nothing short of a marvel.
When Jaro and Jett donned their red therapy dog vests, they became miracle workers. If you push him, Brett will set aside his natural modesty and quietly recount stories that will overwhelm your emotions. For instance, there was the day a young man in nearly unbearable pain inched his way into a wheelchair so Jaro could give him a sled dog wheelchair ride down the pediatrics ward hall. Or the many young women who have since graduated from a local eating disorders clinic. Those women give credit to Jaro for helping them succeed in getting their lives back in order and in many cases, saving their lives. Then there was the day Jaro ever so carefully eased his way onto a patients bed on Christmas Day, giving the mentally challenged gentleman the puppy he had always wanted.
The facilities Jaro and Jett visit are not lighthearted places. Patients are frequently there for the long run, and many will never get better or return home. The staff members work hard to ease the patients stays, but treatments can be arduous and hope is hard to come by. Brett smiles softly and says, When a patient is having a particularly hard time, the kind folks on the staff know it. They recognize when a patient desperately needs something to look forward to. Thats when I get a phone call, asking if the Beasley boys would make a special visit today. And soon after, Jaro and Jett come strolling in, with slowly wagging tails and broad grins, sporting those cheery red vests, ready to share their gentle good spirits with a friend in need.
Long-term care is equally hard on the patients families, and Jaro and Jett lift their hearts as well. And there is no question that the staff members receive an equal portion of feel-good therapy while interacting with Jaro and Jett. The boys definitely make the day a happier one for everyone.
Jett, Jaro and
Rachael pause outside the hospital before beginning their rounds.
Lest you wonder whether therapy dogs enjoy their work, you only have to watch the two Beasley Newfoundlands. When Jaro and Jett enter a facility, the greetings they receive bring a bit of a swagger into their steps. And oh, the tail-wagging! You could sail a schooner in the breeze those happy tails generate.
Their biggest task, which they do phenomenally well, happens each time they enter a room. They must sense the occupants emotions and needs accurately and then respond in kind. The dogs are far better at this than humans. They just know. Jaro and Jett offer precisely as much interaction as the patient wishes. And they are never wrong.
The Beasley Newfs visit many institutions on a regular basis, and Brett is always happy to add new venues to the boys schedule. At each new facility, the staff and patients quickly shift from How ever do you tell them apart? to recognizing their individuality. Staff members proudly point out, Oh, thats Jaro. He has the white blaze on his chest. Or, No, thats Jett hes not quite as big as his brother.
No one wants to be in a hospital over Christmas. Brett knows that his boys can make the holiday brighter. Over the years, many parents have stopped Brett or Rachael it might be in March, it might be in September - to give them a heartfelt hug. Invariably, they will say, Youre the parents of Jaro Claus and Reindeer Jett! They came to visit our sick child in his hospital room on Christmas Day, and none of us will ever forget it.
Jaro, Brett, Rachael and Jett
There is no doubt that one brief
television story on therapy work changed Bretts life. His
association with his local animal therapy organization blossomed;
Brett moved from volunteer to County Coordinator and Team
Evaluator. He believes totally in the healing effect of the
human-animal bond, and his work with I.T.A. helps others partake
in the experience. As part of his job as county coordinator,
Brett gives countless speeches and presentations for film,
television, and print media. In every one, he emphasizes this
Every person we visit will soon forget my name, or Rachaels. But they will remember the moments they spent with Jaro or with Jett, and they will know that the Newfoundlands have made a positive difference in the lives of those they serve.
Brett is very modest about the Beasley familys accomplishments. But his unstinting efforts have greatly expanded the therapy animal program in his area through his tireless efforts to recruit stellar dogs and owners. Because of this and many other contributions, Brett was recognized as I.T.As 2008 Hall of Fame Inductee. Which, being Brett, he immediately downplayed. He insists that This award does not go to me. It goes to Jaro and Jett. They are the true volunteers.
The Beasley Boys created a legacy that is being carried forward by the newest member of the Beasley family, Jagger. He joined the Beasley family in February, 2014, and the Beasleys continued the socializing and training that had begun at the breeders.
Jagger, eight weeks old, in his red ITA bandana
Brett will tell you that Jagger is his very own self and that he is a lovely combination of his two older brothers. He clearly has Jaros personality. Jaro was much like Ferdinand the Bull, enjoying every minute of every day while life passes serenely by like clouds on a breeze. Virtually nothing fazed Jaro a critical trait in a service dog - and Jagger shows that same nature. Jett, on the other hand, was all about intellect, constantly exploring and figuring things out. This let him instantly tune into a patients feelings, identifying his mental state and physical condition. Jett absolutely understood what they were feeling. Jagger also shows those same instincts.
Rachael brings Jagger to visit a special patient.
One of the most difficult aspects of training and evaluating dogs for therapy work is predicting which dogs will display the necessary neutral reactions to other animals at any time and in any setting. Over and over, a seemingly well-suited Pet Partner team fails to make the grade because the dog is overly playful or aggressive when another dog shows up on site. Jagger, fortunately, has shown a balanced personality, and he demonstrates good etiquette when he meets other animals.
The local hospital where Jaro and Jett performed much of their service work made Brett and Rachael an unusual offer. They invited Jagger to visit the hospital throughout his puppy life. Since he is not yet certified to meet with patients, he meets with the staff. They are always delighted to see Jagger. And these monthly visits allow Brett and Rachael to observe and evaluate Jaggers progress. At Jaggers last visit, a senior administrator voiced what they all had observed. Hes a natural.
Jagger and Rachael
Jagger is well on his way to following in his big brothers footsteps. He will be eligible to register as a Therapy Animal early in 2015.
Patti and Veronica
Ch Sweetbay Sullivan RN WD DD, EL-4795 and
Sweetbays Lola, NF-9522, EL-3267
Denvers Craig Hospital
provides care and rehabilitation for patients with brain or
spinal injuries. For many years, members of Colorados High
Country Newfoundland Club have brought their dogs to visit the
patients. Monday night is Newfie night at Craig, and
anywhere from two to six Newfoundlands saunter from room to room,
stopping in to say hi to each patient who wishes a visit.
For the Pigeons, visits to Craig are a family affair. Patti Pigeon is a regular, bringing her two-year-old Sweetbays Sullivan. Pattis husband Paul accompanied Patti for Sullys certification. Pattis daughter Veronica Pigeon dognaps seven-year-old Sweetbays Lola from her twin sister, Nicolette Reynolds, for these visits and sometimes Nics husband Kevin comes, too.
Sully and Lola visit Craig together. Each is a natural at therapy work, but they have very different styles and together, they make a perfect team. Sully is outgoing and gregarious, the life of the party, and he is quick to recognize which patients will enjoy a visit from an exuberant force of nature. His joie de vie and that ever-wagging tail can quickly shift a depressed patient into one who grins and laughs. Lola is a more reflective Newf. She calmly eases into a room, taking the measure of its occupants, waiting quietly until shes invited over. She reads people intuitively, and always knows which ones would prefer a soft head to quietly pat or a furry body to gently hug.
Lola (left) and Sully pose before their weekly hospital visit
Craig Hospital has two floors that
house its patients. One floor is for those who are severely
compromised. They are frequently unable to walk or talk, and are
often on ventilators. The second floor houses the more active,
capable patients. Each Monday night, the Newfs visit every room
on both floors. (Patti and Veronica always ask permission to
visit, knocking politely on each door, but the answer is
invariably a delighted yes!) Each room is actually a
mini-suite, occupied not just by the patient but by family
members and friends. In some cases, the patient might be reticent
to visit a dog, but the family members are always delighted to
see the Newfs.
Petting or hugging a dog is often a formal part of a patients physical therapy. For many patients, just being able to reach their hand out to touch a dogs head is a real challenge but its oh so worth the effort, because theres a vibrant, beaming dog involved, and not a cold clinical piece of machinery measuring their progress. When family members provide encouragement, and a dog asks with its gleaming eyes to be petted, patients work hard to make the effort.
Patti reflects on their Craig visits with a smile. Its really great to be able to give the people a break in their day. At Craig, its all institutional its a hospital, after all and everything around the patients is intense. But when the Newfs arrive, everything changes to warm and fuzzy.
Its true, says Veronica. When were in a room visiting, the patients will relax and smile. They get so excited to see us. I love when they share interesting stories about their lives before they became incapacitated. Their days have become so clinical at the hospital, but the dogs visits are pure joy. The patients can forget their troubles for a while and just have fun.
To be eligible to visit Craig Hospital, Patti (and Sully) and Veronica (and Lola) had to pass a TDI test. Therapy Dogs Incorporated sets the standard for appropriate therapy dog behavior, and Sully and Lola passed with ease. Once approved, the dogs went through a short probation period. A TDI tester observed their first three hospital visits, and the positive reports shifted them to official therapy dog status.
Holiday visits are especially fun. Every December, the Newfs don Santa hats. And for Halloween, the skys the limit. In 2012, Lola was a flamenco dancer, with a gorgeous red and black slinky dress and a dramatic tulle rose tucked behind her ear. Sully, ever the clown, was a giant rabbit, complete with long fuzzy grey ears that flopped down over his nose, and he carried a giant stuffed carrot. As Patti says, Everyone loves dogs in clothes. And Sully and Lola love dressing up. When the costumes come out, they get even more excited. They love their Craig visits.
Sweetbays Galileo, NF-8283, EL-2252
Pat Nevils is flanked by Ike (left)
Pat Nevils is the rescue chairman for Old West, the regional NCA Newfoundland club based in Texas. Dozens of abandoned or unwanted Newfoundlands have come into her home on a temporary basis, usually with short or no notice. Pat welcomes them, lives with them, assesses them, gives them great care, and works hard to find them marvelous, permanent homes.
Pat has one Newf of her own, Sweetbays Galileo. Leo helps Pat with the new dogs, teaching them the ropes and quietly helping them settle into the Nevils routines for the duration of their short stays.
In October, two weeks after Hurricane Ike wreaked its devastation on the south, Pat received notice of a male Newf who had been found wandering, homeless. He was clearly one of the many victims of the hurricane. Pat took him in and promptly christened him Ike. Nothing was known of his history. He was underweight, dirty, tick-infested, and obviously uncared for, and his general appearance, serious demeanor, slow movement and unsteady gait put his age at around six. When Pat took him to her veterinary clinic for an evaluation, the veterinarian provided surprising news: the dog was closer to two years old. Ikes impaired movement and lack of balance was not due to advanced age. As the veterinarian discovered, Ike had cataracts and was virtually blind.
This is where Leo comes into the story. Ordinarily, Leo remains calmly and emotionally neutral from the rescues that come and go. He knows theyll stay only a few days, then move on. Hes gentle with them, welcomes them, but does not get deeply involved. But when Ike arrived, Leos behavior totally changed. He seemed to instinctively know that Ike was lacking a crucial faculty, and that the big shambling Newfie needed him. Leo greeted Ike very gently and allowed Ike to sniff him all over. He continually checked on Ike, and was very patient with the big, quiet boy.
Since Ike cannot see, he relies on touch. Leo allowed Ike to stay in physical contact whether they were lying down, waiting for their dinner, or roaming the back yard. Many times, Ike crashed into Leo if Leo slowed down or stopped. Thats annoying, but Leo never corrected him. Instead, he waited for Ike to figure it out, and Ike either backed up so he was touching Leo, or put out a paw to maintain contact.
Indoors, Leo showed Ike all the important places: the cool foyer, the kitchen, the bathroom, and he helped until Ike could navigate on his own.
Leo also tried to show Ike how much fun life is but Ike had no idea how to play. He simply had never done so before, and was clueless. Leo was endlessly patient, and in time, Ike gained enough confidence to begin to play. Leo taught Ike to run beside him. This meant the normally zooming Leo had to run very slowly, for Ikes slow shuffling gait would never improve. Leo also taught Ike a version of chase that they could play, with Ike pursuing Leo in the safety of the back yard. Next came hide and seek. Leo would move away and then hold very still, smiling and wagging his tail as Ike took a minute or two to find him.
Leo has a favorite outside toy, a ball within a ball. It brings out his puppyish nature, and he rolls it about with his nose and feet, barking at it with glee. He convinced Ike that this was the best toy ever, and shared it politely. Then he taught Ike how to play with it. Ike now bashes it about the yard like a soccer player, nudging it with his feet until it gets stuck at the fence corner, then picking it up and carrying it to the middle of the yard to start again. It would make you smile to watch them together now, for Ike truly did not know how to play until Leo taught him how.
There have been many adjustments along the way for Ike. Getting him into a car was a huge challenge at first. He was afraid to get his feet off the ground. Leo, of course, loves car rides, so he demonstrated how to jump in and out of Pats SUV. His enthusiasm diminished Ikes fears, and Ike now confidently puts his front feet up so Pat can boost him in.
Leo has always loved draft work. He was a natural from the beginning. Pat wondered, could Ike learn to pull a cart if he was hitched in tandem with Leo? Newfies love having a job, and this might be a safe and enjoyable activity for Ike. Sure enough, with his best friend Leo by his side, Ike took to carting and enjoys the activity.
Every rescue dog that Pat brings into her home is there only temporarily. It is a pact Pat has made with herself: each will be placed with a loving, permanent family. But Ike may be the exception, and its all because of Leo. Ikes vision issues necessitated several veterinary-specialist visits. When that first appointment rolled around, Leo watched Pat and Ike get into the car and drive off. Leos face and attitude showed his usual stoic acceptance of the way the world is. This was just like always: a dog comes, stays, and then leaves, never to return. After all, every other rescued dog had come and then left.
Hours later, when Pats car pulled back in the drive, Leo greeted her with a wagging tail. But when he saw Ike in the car, he literally bounced about, airborne, jumping with joy. You could just see him saying, Ike! Youre back! Im so glad youre back! It was totally unlike Leos response to any other dog Pat had taken in. There was no question: these two were soul mates.
And if you ask Pat if Ike will be going to a new home sometime soon, she just shares a smile with Leo as she shakes her head. Ike is their boy now. He absolutely trusts Leo in every way. The fearful dog who came to the Nevils household in October of 2008 is now a confident and happy boy, thanks to his relationship with Leo.
Sweetbays Koda, NF-9985
Theresa Kelly fell in love with Newfoundlands for the usual reasons: they are beautiful, sweet, and intelligent. But she had an even more compelling reason for choosing the breed. Her husband, Dan, has physical limitations and reduced mobility. A well-trained service dog would be of inestimable help in improving his quality of life. But rather than purchase an already-trained dog, Theresa wanted to start with a puppy - a Newfie puppy.
Before the puppy arrived, Theresa searched for a service trainer. Living in Nebraska, she wasnt optimistic of her chances. So she was delighted to find a woman who did search and rescue and who trained service dogs as a sideline. Theresa telephoned, introduced herself to the woman, and explained her plan.
To Theresas surprise, the trainer stated flatly that a Newf was a lousy choice as an assistance dog. In her words, they are all big, clumsy and lazy, and she pointedly suggested that Theresa choose a more suitable breed. Theresa, however, refused to be dissuaded. She had her heart set on a Sweetbay puppy, and was positive she could make it work.
The trainer became even more adamant about her reservations. She told Theresa that good service dogs begin their training from birth, and she stressed how far behind the puppy would be. So Theresa explained about the extensive socializing and training all puppies receive at the Adlers, adding that they were bred for intelligence and working skills which should help. She could tell, though, that the trainer was shaking her head and thinking, Yeah, right.
The trainer informed Theresa that there was more to assistance work than just obedience training, and the dog must have a certain attitude. You cant just take any old puppy and make it a service dog, the woman kept repeating. Then she offered to provide Theresa with a better dog. But Theresa knew the Sweetbay puppy she would be getting was a far cry from any old puppy.
Even though the trainer clearly had already made up her mind, she grudgingly offered to accept Theresa and the puppy as students on a trial basis. Theresa thought long and hard. She realized that the trainers opinions were just that: opinions. She didnt have to buy into them. But she could still learn, and the puppy would benefit from the training. Theresa decided to hold her tongue, ignore the womans negative opinions, and let the puppy prove its worth.
When Koda arrived, age eight weeks old, it was clear that he was an extremely well-socialized puppy with a confident, happy, curious nature. Theresa began teaching him some baby basics, and she continued his socialization, taking him for car rides and introducing him to everyone they met along the way.
A week later, Koda and Theresa had their first service training session. The trainer came to the Kelly house, her negative attitude in full bloom. Koda was playing in the kitchen when the trainer came in. She purposely ignored him, interrogating Dan and Theresa instead, all the while subtly observing Koda. Getting no response from her, the friendly pup went about his business, playing with his toys. Theresa answered her questions, explaining about Sweetbay and the Adlers dedication to producing a strong line of working dogs. She shared the information packet the Adlers had sent, and the trainer was surprised at the amount of information Theresa had about Koda and the details of his care up to that point.
Then she turned her attention to Koda. When she called him, he excitedly ran over and immediately sat down in front of her to greet her, retaining that sit as he wriggled with happiness. The trainer was clearly surprised at his manners, his speed, and his enthusiasm.
She was still sure he would be critically far behind, though. Theresa watched nervously as the trainer gave Koda a series of commands. As he responded perfectly to each one, Theresa looked over at Dan and they both smiled. Koda continued to perform beautifully, no matter what the trainer tossed at him. Koda even performed commands Theresa didnt realize he knew.
But the trainer wasnt yet ready to be won over. Despite Kodas stellar performance, she offered only one comment. Koda didnt maintain constant eye contact with her, and that was a bad sign. Theresa smiled to herself and thought, Well, it cant be that much of a problem since he responded to all of your commands correctly and easily.
Then the trainer escorted Koda outside in order to test a few more behaviors. Again, Koda performed each command without hesitation. The Kellys couldnt have been more proud of him. He even outshined their expectations.
Finally, something verging on the positive came from the trainers mouth: He definitely likes to work.
When the session was over, Theresa asked the trainer what she thought. There is a lot of work to be done with Koda, she said - and then added But he does appear to have a fairly good start. Theresa just smiled. He had made a good impression on her, but she wasnt ready to admit it.
Koda lost no time in winning the trainer over. Over the next several sessions, he learned dozens of behaviors, performing each one with joy. He accepted his service dog cape and collar without demur and wore them proudly.
On many occasions, the trainer would try to startle him into inappropriate responses like running away or behaving fearfully or aggressively. But sudden loud noises and scary actions were not a problem. Koda met them all calmly and with interest.
It was clear the trainer recognized Kodas potential. She did mention, though, that she would have to adjust her usual training methods as they went further into the training, since Newfs are totally lacking in physical agility. Dan and Theresa just smiled, knowing that this was just one more misconception that Koda would joyously shatter.
nature makes him a natural for therapy work
P.S. Three years later, Koda has more than proved his worth as a service dog. Oh, and you know that little vest he wore when he first started learning the ropes? Well, rather than equip him with a big-dog version, the Kellys chose a sturdy backpack for his service clothes. As Theresa says, theres one big advantage to choosing a giant breed for your service dog: theres lots of storage room for all the stuff an owner might need.
Sweetbays Cimarron CD TD WD, NF-5789, EL-608
When Lois Apfel heard of a program where gentle dogs visit the library to encourage young children to read, she knew that would be a perfect job for her therapy dog, Cimi. Her local branch of the San Diego county library system inaugurated their own program in 2003, and the library staffers welcomed Lois and Cimi with delight.
Reluctant readers soon became eager readers thanks to Cimis calm presence. An adult or other child could be intimidating or might tease, extinguishing even a tiny spark of willingness, but Cimi was nonjudgmental. His quiet interest encouraged the child to try, and reading out loud became possible and then fun. Week by week, Cimi sat with his individual charges and listened to book after book. Even now, Lois hears from parents who comment about what a big difference Cimi made in their young sons and daughters lives.
Sweetbays Olivia CDX THD WRDX, NF-8222, EL-2199
Rick and Olivia
Rick Pourchot took his Newfoundland, Olivia, through the therapy dog training program sponsored by Support Dogs Inc. This is a St. Louis-based non-profit agency that provides service dogs to recipients nationwide as well as pet-assisted therapy to thousands in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Olivia graduated on May 1, 2008, with flying colors. She was certified AC2 for adults and children, which allows her to visit specialized school districts in addition to hospitals and nursing homes.
There were six dogs present at Olivias first assignment, at one of the special school districts in St. Louis. The students ranged from age 13 to 21. The dogs worked in pairs, moving from room to room, accompanied by a staff member. Rick recalls that first visit lasted with a smile. It lasted an hour and there was never a moment without at least one hand touching Olivia, and usually many.
Students who were capable of movement would reach out and pet Olivia. The students who lacked motor skills would turn their heads in her direction, and Olivia would instinctively move in close so they could make contact. Knowing that this was great physical therapy, the staff member would encourage those students to Turn your head in this direction so you can see this beautiful dog.
The last students Olivia visited were more advanced in their abilities, and they were able to go outside. They took turns throwing a ball for her, and she fetched and fetched and fetched, delighting them all.
During the ball-playing session, the other therapy dog brought his ball over and lay down next to Olivia, quietly content. His owners were amazed; they said their dog would not let any other dog near him when he had a ball. Olivias quiet, responsible demeanor had worked on her co-therapy dog as well as it did on the children.
Olivia also visits the Veterans Hospital on a regular basis. She is a big hit with the men, and they look forward to her visits.
In September, Olivia was accepted into the PAWS for Reading program, and made her first visit to meet her class. The school is for students with multiple learning disabilities, and there are ten students (ages seven and eight) in Olivias class. This was the first time a dog was invited to the school, and the students were really excited. Before the visit, the students wrote a pledge where they promised to treat Olivia with respect. During her visit, each student recited the pledge to Olivia before they read to her from a book of their choosing. The rules were both sweet and common-sense; they included pet the dog softly and do not step on her.
Olivia at work
In December Olivia was again tested, and she earned the highly coveted and difficult-to-attain AC1 certification. AC1 is given only to the best of the best. It qualifies Olivia and Rick to be one of sixteen dog/handler teams who volunteer at St. Louis Childrens Hospital. As an official hospital volunteer, Olivia can be seen making her rounds in the Pediatric and Cardiac Intensive Care floor and Hematology/Oncology/Bone Marrow Transplant unit. As she visits with the kids, Olivia brightens the day for the doctors, support staff and the patients parents as well.
Olivia enjoys a play
session with the Pourchots young puppy, Zara
From the time she was a tiny puppy, Olivia was an extremely observant dog. She always noticed when something was different in her surroundings (a birdhouse newly hung from a tree, an open window, a new toaster in the kitchen, a towel hanging on the fence) and she always had plenty to say about it. Yet when she does her therapy work, nothing whatsoever bothers her. Special needs children can be very loud and shrill, not to mention erratic and unpredictable. And every schoolroom, hospital ward, and nursing home brings a wealth of new experiences. But Olivia just accepts it all with quiet calmness.
Olivia (back row, center) takes a break from her therapy duties
at the Childrens Hospital and poses with her fellow service
Sweetbays Ellie, NF-9695
Karen Brockway has had Newfoundlands since she was a teenager, back in the 1970s. A marriage followed by the arrival of a son and daughter sent her life in a new direction. She began volunteering at her childrens school, taking on various jobs there, both volunteer and paid. That rekindled an interest in teaching. So after a seventeen-year break, Karen went back to school. Five years ago, she completed a bachelors degree in human development, and in the fall of 2005, she began teaching at M.A. Lynch, an elementary school in Redmond.
Schoolrooms often include a class pet, typically a gerbil, bunny or guinea pig. But Karen had always thought it would be great to have a dog as the classroom pet, so she set out to make this a reality. Her Newf puppy, Ellie, was four months old when Karen approached the principal with her idea. Karen was midway through her first year as a teacher, and she quite frankly expected to be met with resistance. But she hoped that if she was polite, patient, and persistent, her dog could eventually win a place at school.
Karens first-grade class consisted of 26 students who were high on energy but low on the traits that make for successful students. Karen calls them high-octane kids. The school is situated in a low-income part of town, and many of the kids lack a stable home life. Most had never had a pet, and had never known the unconditional love that a great dog can provide. Karen was positive that Ellie could make a difference in these kids lives. Amazingly, her principal listened to the proposal and agreed to give it a try. Ellie would make her debut in April, 2006, just after spring break.
Newfies are irresistible, and Newfie puppies are doubly so. Karen knew her two dozen energetic first-graders would overwhelm the puppy, swarming around her and swamping her with petting hands and loud chatter, unless Karen set some firm guidelines. So she prepared for Ellies first day in several ways. She also wanted the students to know that Ellie was there to do a job, not just to be petted or fussed over. Service dogs wear vests to alert the public that they are on duty, and Karen decided that a bandana would serve as Ellies work clothes. When the kids saw Ellie wearing a bandana, that meant they were not to pet her or call her by name. (Waving hello is fine.)
Karen also set up a crate in the classroom in a relatively quiet spot. That area was designated as Ellies office and the crate was her desk. Karen knew the puppy would appreciate a place she could go when she needed her own space. Hand-printed signs designated these areas as Ellies, and the kids respected them. (This worked even better than Karen had imagined. Although the crate door was always left open, the first graders quickly understood Ellies need for a bit of quiet time now and then. Many times a day, two or three kids would be sitting just outside the crate, quietly reading to Ellie.)
Ellie poses in her
Since Ellie was just a pup when she began coming to school, in one way she was in the same boat as the students. She, too, had a lot of learning to do. This meant mastering basic commands as well as fitting into the daily routine at school. Karen told her first-graders that Ellie, too, would be learning, and that she needed the students help. The majority of Ellies actual training occurred during school hours, and the kids were always in Ellies corner, helping her to succeed. Fortunately, Ellie learns quickly and loves to please. Throughout the school year, the students learned important lessons about consistency and clear communication by watching the puppy learn her lessons.
Before the school year began, Karen sent out a letter to the parents of her students, informing them that Ellie would be in the classroom, and asking to be notified of any pet allergies or concerns. Those were worked out on an individual basis. The principal was Ellies staunch supporter. Rather than ban her from the school, he simply assigned the affected child to a different classroom. Not that there were many who objected that first year. Ellie quickly became a well-known beloved part of the school, and now, virtually every incoming student fervently begs to be assigned to Ellies class.
At school, Ellie vastly exceeded everyones expectations. Her presence in the classroom provided an immediate calming effect. From the first day she came to school, the octane level in the room immediately decreased dramatically. It wasnt anything Karen did; it was just Ellies calming presence that settled the kids down.
That the first day of school, Karen began by making introductions. She told the class some basic facts about Ellie, as she knew the kids would be curious. She pointed out Ellies desk, and informed the kids that Ellie would probably take a nap or two during the day. She added that Ellie snores when she sleeps, and not just a quiet little ladylike snore, either.
The kids all laughed at that. The concept of a dog snoring was beyond them. But Ellie is, indeed, a prodigious snorer. And the first time the kids actually heard her, the look on their faces was priceless. Ellies snoring became a class legend, and the students treasure this as their own private secret. Since Ellies desk isnt immediately visible as one enters the classroom, visitors have no idea that theres a dog in the room. And on several occasions, a visitor has walked in, heard Ellies snores, and stopped dead, totally stumped at what was causing that strange racket. The kids try their best to keep straight faces, but they cant contain themselves for long, breaking out in laughter at the visitors befuddlement, and full of pride because they know the secret. It is a definite ice-breaker!
Since Karen knew she couldnt stop Ellie from snoring, she used it to her advantage. If her first graders became a little too rowdy, she would tell the kids that we dont want to disturb Ellies nap. It was truly amazing, how quickly they calmed down. As long as Ellie snored, the kids were quiet, and anyone who began to act up would be greeted by his fellow students saying, Shhhh, Ellies sleeping!
down when Ellie settles in for a nap.
One little boy in Karens first grade class had a very unhappy home life. Somehow, Ellie always knew when he was having an especially bad day and she would spend the majority of the school day by his side. She not only helped him, she let Karen know when he was having a rough time and needed extra understanding and patience. Throughout her years at school, Ellie continues to know which children need attention, and she calmly and quietly supplies it as needed.
Many of the students struggle with reading. They found they could triumph over their frustrations simply by reading to Ellie. This became a special treat, being able to read to the Newfoundland, and the students good behavior was rewarded with reading sessions. Reading is a privilege, and they all wanted their turn with Ellie. (Even after they graduated and became second, third and fourth graders, they still loved taking turns reading to Ellie.)
patiently as a student works through the text. That hand on
Ellies shoulder seems to ease the reading along.
You cant help but notice that Ellies reach extends beyond Karens first-grade class. One fifth-grader had always struggled with the daily routines and interactions, and his teachers had a tough time motivating him, holding his interest, and keeping him on a steady keel. He was introduced to Ellie at the start of the year and they formed a bond. Now, he asks for permission to visit her when he becomes overwhelmed, and this has helped him settle into the school routine.
One day, his teacher had the class write a poem. The boy struggled over the assignment, then expressed his frustration by acting up. At a suggestion from his teacher, he brought his paper to Ellies office. With Ellie sitting at his side, within minutes he had completed the assignment. Karen quietly watched from a distance as the boy wrote a sentence, gave Ellie a treat, wrote another sentence, gave Ellie another treat, and so on, until he had a full poem. Being with Ellie, and being able to give her a treat for each line he accomplished, calmed him down and allowed him to do the work. The pride in this young mans face as he handed over the finished poem was something Karen will always remember.
Ellies presence also works wonders on the school staff. Each morning, she announces her arrival with a series of Newfie barks and yodels, and everyone who hears her breaks into a grin. You can hear them saying, Ellies here! with joy in their voices. When Karen walks her down the hall, Ellie saunters saucily, her tail wagging and a big grin on her face, and her upbeat behavior elicits smiles from everyone in her vicinity.
During Ellies first weeks at school, Karen visited the other classrooms, introducing her bandana-wearing puppy and explaining the Ellie protocol. The kids who already knew Ellie helped spread the gospel, too. On many occasions, Karen would overhear some student politely inform another student, staff member or visitor, Ellies wearing her bandana so you cant pet her right now.
Ellie is naturally suited for her classroom work. She truly loves going to school, and her enjoyment spreads to those around her. She has always been calm around large groups, and is comfortable no matter where we go. In addition, loud noises and chatter have never bothered her and elementary schools can be chaotic at times. But her biggest asset is that natural Newfie charm. Ellie has both the patience and the personality to make even the grumpiest non-dog-person fall in love with her.
When Karen first started bringing Ellie to school, there was one huge bump in the road. One fellow teacher was totally opposed to having a dog at school. He did not want Ellie there and vehemently objected to her presence, complaining to the principal on many occasions. Fortunately, the principal had seen Ellies value from her first day at school, and was convinced that she was an important part of the school staff. With his support, Ellie stayed. However, the teacher who was so against her continued his campaign to have her barred from school. Karen did her best to diplomatically avoid confrontations, and hoped that he would eventually come around.
Wouldnt you know it. The following year, Karen changed grades and wound up partner-teaching with the fellow. They had adjoining classrooms, separated by a folding partition that could be retracted, making one large room. Sharing the space could have been a disaster. Karen did her best to not alienate the man by keeping Ellie at a distance, and keeping her crated when the divider was open. But Ellie knew better, and she quietly went to work. Those of us who love Newfoundlands have all seen instances of a good Newfie turning an anti-dog person into a convert, but Ellie took it to an even higher level. In a matter of days, this fellow began asking if Ellie could come into his classroom. He opened the petition and invited her over, offering treats and pats if she would stay in his side. Once the barrier was down, he quickly warmed to the gentle dog. To say he is now Ellies biggest fan is not an exaggeration. Karen recounts with glee the day she discovered that he had built a special desk in his room and cleverly modified it, adding a rope handle to a low drawer and then stocking it with goodies so that Ellie could open it and get a treat whenever she wanted. Although Karen and the fellow now have classrooms at opposite ends of the school, he still brings his kindergartners in to visit Ellie twice a day. (He says its for the childrens benefit, but Karen is sure this is an excuse so he can see his best girl.)
Ellies services extend far beyond the classroom. She participates in many school-wide activities, and is always the highest fund-raiser whenever the students host walks or runs for charity. Ellie has become, literally, the face of the school. Karen tells the tale of visiting Karens grandmother, who lives in a care facility several hours distant from Bend. She stopped at a rest area on her way home and got Ellie out, on lead. A young boy was waiting for his mom who was in the womens restroom. As Karen walked past, he said, Hey, thats Ellie! Karen didnt recognize the child, and asked how he knew Ellie. His response was a proud, She goes to my school!
Ellie is always an
important contributor to the schools fundraising events.
Ellie has had a profound effect on everyone she meets, but none have been as deeply touched as Karen herself. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout the many months of treatments, Ellie was always at Karens side. Chemotherapy is unbelievably debilitating. Karen often found that she had difficulty getting up out of a chair or out of bed. All on her own, knowing what was needed, Ellie would stand next to Karen and hold rock-still, allowing Karen to pull herself to her feet. After each chemotherapy treatment, Ellie would lie by Karens bedside with her chin gently resting on the bed, making sure Karen was okay. She instinctively knew that Karen needed her there, and needed her to be quiet. And knowing that Ellie needed her always gave Karen the reason to keep going. Throughout the treatments, Karen continued to teach at school, always with her Newfoundland by her side. Ellie not only provided emotional support for the students at school, she faithfully helped Karen through the most difficult months of her life.
Sweetbays Fisher, NF-9529, EL-3273
Mt. Vernon, Washington
Lindy and Fisher
Lindy Christophersons husband John was diagnosed with a chronic illness in 1999. The disease progressed fairly slowly at first. But shortly after Sweetbays Fisher joined their family in 2005, things went into overdrive. Walking became an issue, and John had to employ a cane, and eventually a wheelchair at one point. Bending over to pick something up was out of the question. If John fell, he could not get up.
Lindy began training Fisher as Johns assistance dog from puppyhood. There were no service-dog training classes in her rural area, so Lindy made it up as she went along. As she says, Fortunately, Fisher is very bright and receptive, and he made it all seem easy.
Lindy and eight week old Fisher
There were two primary tasks Fisher needed to learn. One was to pick up any item and hold onto it until it was delivered. This is akin to regular obedience training where the dog fetches and delivers a dumbbell or a glove. But the objects Lindy incorporated were of a much broader scope: socks, underwear, towels, keys, the telephone, a toolbox, her purse, Johns cane. Fisher learned quickly, and he became utterly reliable. Lindy confesses that John isnt the only one to value this skill. She confides that its very handy to have a dog who will pick up your keys when you are trying to unlock your front door and you drop them, fumbling in the dark.
One of the more helpful pick it up tasks involved the television remote control. Its a common problem in many households; the remote seems to have legs, and a mind of its own. When Lindy tells Fisher that the remote has gone AWOL and sends him to search, Fisher hunts diligently, going from room to room if necessary, until he finds it. Then he brings it back and inserts it into Johns hand.
The second crucial task was to stand absolutely steady so John could use Fisher to get back on his (Johns) feet if he fell. Although Lindy taught it with formal commands (stand and stay), Fisher seemed to understand what was needed even before she began the training. He just planted his feet, stood like a rock, and would let her pull herself up into a stand.
The Christophersons have been very lucky; John has been better lately and has not needed Fishers services. But they still ask Fisher daily to help out in the house by finding and bringing items to them. He loves his job.
In 2009, Fisher passed a series of
certification tests with flying colors. This official stamp of
approval allows him to work with the public, sharing his gentle
sweetness and helpful nature on a broader scale. To Fisher, the
more he can do, the happier he is. Lindy says, Some days I
feel like a soccer mom as she drives the ultra-popular
Fisher to this event or that gathering.
Fisher participates in Tales for Tales, a program for second graders who need extra help with reading skills. The children read to dogs once a week, and the teachers cannot believe how much having a dog in the classroom helps the slow readers make progress. It makes sense, though. A dog is a safe, non-judgmental listener. He doesnt correct a kids pronunciation or tell him to hurry. He never teases the kid if he makes a mistake, and he is always supportive. Reading aloud is a valuable tool in gaining proficiency, and reading to a dog removes the anxiety and embarrassment. Lest you think this is drudgery for Fisher, Lindy swears that he loves those visits. She says, Fisher can smell an elementary school a mile away. Maybe it's the cafeteria, the milk, or the dirty feet - who knows? - but he loves those places.)
Young Caleb loves reading now. His skills improved dramatically once Fisher began coming to the elementary school.
For ninety minutes, Fisher listens
patiently as one youngster or another sits at his side and reads
him pages from the books theyve chosen. (Although Fisher
loves these sessions and listens intently, for some reason, Green
Eggs and Ham always put him to sleep.) When each group of
children graduate out of the sessions, Fisher is on hand to
congratulate them with a cart ride.
In partnership with a ten-year-old golden retriever named Baker, Fisher meets with large groups of children at a second elementary school. The two dogs demonstrate the activities that service and helper dogs do. To the kids, the tasks are all awe-inspiring tricks. When Fisher unzips my coat, or shuts a cupboard door, or hands me a crutch, or finds the remote that has disappeared, the kids respond with oohs and aahs. The real crowd-pleaser, though, is when Baker does a little musical freestyle weaving, slipping in and out of the much-taller Fishers legs. Public-relations programs like this promote service dog work, an important part of ensuring that service and helper dogs will continue to be an accepted part of everyday life in a community.
These three young ladies are volunteer therapy dog testers. Through a program at their school, they create situations a visiting dog might encounter: they yell and screech, run through the halls, rush the dog to pet him, and so on. They have worked with many potential therapy dogs, but Fisher was their favorite from the moment they met.
Fishers schedule has
expanded to include nursing homes, rehab centers, and hospitals.
Wherever he goes, he is welcomed with broad smiles and open arms.
However, his most unusual assignment started with a simple
The programs coordinator for Skagit Countys juvenile detention unit contacted Dogs on Call, the service dog group to which Fisher belongs. This is a holding facility for ages twelve to seventeen. The coordinator mentioned that many of the residents had mental health issues, and all of them were angry; no one wanted to be there. She felt that a visit from a friendly dog could be a positive and welcome addition to their unhappy lives. But and this was crucial it had to be the right dog.
The Dogs on Call management recognized that this was a troubled population. These werent smiling second graders. They were enormous, fiercely muscled, heavily-tattooed, attitude-filled young men (and a few women), nearly all aged fifteen to seventeen. They may have been children according to the law, but they looked and acted like full-grown men who felt no qualms about breaking the law and were angry that they got caught. To be effective, a dog would need to make an immediate and positive impact on this group, plus be absolutely rock-solid in a stressful and difficult environment. Finding the right match was crucial. The service dog coordinator quickly narrowed the field to one dog: our gentle giant, the Newfoundland named Fisher.
Two months of meetings, correspondence, red tape, and background checks ensued. One surprising issue surfaced almost immediately. The list of what one can bring into the detention center is very limited. No purses, nothing sharp, not even stapled sheets of paper. Well, you cant put on a demonstration without props. This meant Lindy had to get specific permission for each item Fisher uses in their repertoire, as well as those things he needs for his own comfort.
Eventually, all the issues were resolved, and Fisher and Lindy were set. Twice a month, on Saturdays, they would visit the detention facility. Their regular appearances began in April.
Each time Lindy and Fisher arrive, Lindy is reminded that this is a serious facility. They enter through a series of four intimidating doors that are securely locked and under video surveillance. The cafeteria, where Fisher does his show, is a large open lunchroom area thats surrounded by the locked cells. Two armed guards are present in the room; a third watches via surveillance camera. Lindy and Fisher take their positions in the center, and each of the cell doors is unlocked, one by one. (This session is not mandatory; the detainees can decide whether to participate or not. Most cant resist Fishers smile and wagging tail.)
Lindy said, When the young men file into the cafeteria, they are all attitude, with fierce expressions and swaggering gait. Then they see Fisher and they light up like three-year-olds at Christmas. Suddenly, they are kids again, and for an hour, they forget where they are and just enjoy the show.
The average stay at the holding facility is under two weeks, so there is a constant turnover. Each time, the audience is mostly new. So Lindy begins each visit by introducing herself and her furry companion. She talks about Newfoundlands and what they were bred for, then shares Fishers weight (160), his height (really tall!), and basic facts like what he likes to eat, and how much. Invariably, someone asks where Newfoundland is, so a free geography lesson is tossed in. Lindy also explains what service and therapy dogs do.
Then she slips into Fishers repertoire, involving the audience as much as she can. The idea of training a dog fascinates these young men. Lindy demonstrates Fishers hand signal commands, then lets volunteers take a turn giving Fisher a command. Someone always tries speak on command and gets quite a surprise. Fisher has a massive, deep bark, and he woofs right in the guys face at full volume. Its startling and then everyone cracks up.
Lindy aims for as much lightness and levity as possible, yet she also stresses the importance of these tasks. To a physically compromised person, the dogs skills are not entertaining. They are invaluable. For instance, Lindy passes out socks and has the young men put them on their feet; then Fisher goes from man to man and pulls them off. Everyone laughs but you can see them thinking about why this might actually have a purpose.
At the end of the program, Fisher cruises the audience, eliciting pets and scratches. For those moments, no one thinks of prison. Theres just one happy dog and his many admirers, glorying in each others company.