Wednesdays are special days at the Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital Cancer Treatment Center in Somerset. This is visiting day for Love on a Leash, when anxious patients awaiting treatment can pat and talk to a group of friendly, loving therapy dogs—Border collies, a German shepherd, and a smooth-coated collie. Robert Waterman, a patient here, sits quietly until he’s approached by a Border collie named Meg. He breaks into a grin, and doesn’t seem to mind the doggy kisses he’s getting.
Why would a cancer treatment center let a bunch of dogs in?
“Because the patients love it!” says Tammy Bowman, director of the cancer center. “It’s such good therapy; the dogs have been wonderful and made such a difference.”
The idea of animals providing therapy has become more accepted and even commonplace in recent years. Scientific research has proven what many of us knew all along: pets and therapy animals in institutional settings have numerous physical and emotional benefits. Stroking, patting, talking to, and just being with an animal is relaxing, can calm a person’s nerves, and has even been shown to lower a person’s blood pressure.
This is the concept behind an organization called Love on a Leash (LOAL). It’s a national program of the Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy, composed of volunteers and their own certified pets. Love on a Leash was begun by dog trainer Liz Palika in San Diego in 1984. A trainer and author, she started out by providing pet therapy, and began receiving more and more requests for visits by dogs at assisted-living facilities, schools, and hospitals. The program continued to grow: there are now chapters of LOAL in 28 states.
Kentucky has its own chapters in Somerset, Lexington, Frankfort, and other towns. Kentucky also had the distinction of being the state with the highest membership growth in the United States in 2004, the highest in the history of Love on a Leash.
Since February 2004, the Somerset chapter of Love on a Leash has brought pet dogs and cats wherever this type of therapy may be needed. Volunteers bring their certified pets to cancer centers, spouse abuse facilities, elementary schools, nursing homes, libraries, hospice, and hospitals.
“There’s something special about animals that touches us viscerally,” says coordinator Gloria Sams, cancer control specialist with the Kentucky Cancer Program. “Animals can reach people when nothing else will.”
Sams got interested in the program when she took her cocker spaniel, Joey, to a Lake Cumberland Kennel Club obedience class where trainer Liz Norris of Frankfort said that he would make a perfect therapy dog. Sams organized a community meeting to see how much interest there might be in forming a pet therapy group, and says she was “amazed at how many people came—there was an obvious interest in the idea.” About 65 people attended that meeting, and within two years, the Love on a Leash chapter went from just three certified animals to its current 41 volunteers with 55 certified therapy pets.
But Sams gives credit for the expansion of LOAL in Kentucky to Norris. A respected professional dog trainer, Norris has donated her time to train dogs in Somerset through the Lake Cumberland Kennel Club, hoping several graduates each session become therapy dogs. She also runs Pawsibilities Unleashed, an organization that trains rescued dogs as potential therapy or service dogs. She notes, “Doing therapy work is like Christmas every day. You see so many small ‘miracles’ that happen with the animals and people. What better job than to volunteer in a venue that makes people happy, changes lives, and you can take your dog or cat with you.”
The dogs have made an amazing impact on the people they visit. “We had one gentleman, a terminal patient, who made an unbelievable connection with one of the dogs,” says Bowman. “He hadn’t smiled in months until this dog started loving on him. His wife was very thankful for the pleasure the dog brought him.”
A very special relationship began at the cancer center between a little boy named Matthew and a Border collie by the name of Diogee. Six-year-old Matthew has undergone two brain surgeries, and his physical therapy was going slowly until he became friends with Diogee.
“They’ve taught each other tricks,” says father Tom Travers, a dosimetrist at the cancer center. When Matthew was a baby and lost his ability to crawl due to his cancer, he showed little motivation for physical therapy. Diogee took over and “herded” him up and down the halls, encouraging him to move around. The breakthrough came when Diogee was taught to crawl under a line of chairs: wanting to be with the dog, Matthew followed him, and thus learned to crawl again.
“Matthew loves Diogee,” Travers says with a smile. “On days when he doesn’t feel well, you can’t tell it while he’s with the dog.”
Today, it’s hard to tell that Matthew has any physical problems. He and Dakota, another certified pet therapy dog, race around the room chasing each other. Diogee looks on, and seems to be laughing along with Matthew.
Diogee is rather special at Love on a Leash, though his owner and handler, Angela Ferguson, says, “He’s just an incredible dog, but I can’t take credit. God created him, not me.”
A former HR manager and network administrator for a social services agency in Canada, Ferguson recalls a sexually abused boy who didn’t want to talk to anyone. Angela had been bringing Diogee to her office there, and one day Diogee jumped into the boy’s lap. The boy soon began talking to Diogee, relating everything he’d been through. What he couldn’t tell adults, he could tell the dog.
All the volunteers at Love on a Leash have a story about how they got involved in the program, including Ted Koester, who goes on these visits with his collie mix, Xena. A cancer survivor himself, Koester read an article about Love on a Leash and decided to join.
“Xena loves this,” says Koester, patting his dog. She has visited regularly at the cancer center, hospitals, and day-care programs for the elderly.
But Xena may have found her niche with children. Koester and Xena are regulars at the Pulaski County Public Library, where Xena listens to children read and is one of four Reading Education Assistance dogs in the Somerset chapter. Some of these children have a low literacy rate, low self-esteem, or are learning English as a second language. For some, it’s a lot of pressure to read aloud to adults.
However, as Koester says, “Children will read to dogs. Some kids have trouble reading to adults, but they’re not afraid of reading to an animal. An animal doesn’t judge or correct.”
From their first visit, the children have snuggled up to Xena and read aloud to her. “Xena has a good temperament,” says Koester, “she likes people.”
“Lower the stress, and you increase the learning,” says Alyce Grover, a faculty member of Somerset Community College who visits with her dogs Bo, Skye, and Meg. This chapter of Love on a Leash is very committed to reading programs, modeled after the award-winning R.E.A.D.—Reading Education Assistance Dogs. As Alyce notes, dogs are noncritical listeners, and studies have shown great increases in reading levels when using therapy dogs. It’s a new program, but everyone involved feels it will be successful.
Cathy LaCour, an oncology social worker at the cancer center, says she got involved with Love on a Leash for a very selfish reason: “I wanted to bring my dog to work with me!” she says, laughing.
Thirty years ago, LaCour was working at a women’s residential treatment center; the women being treated there were withdrawn and depressed. Even then, LaCour was bringing her dog to work with her, and she discovered that interaction with the dog brought these women out of their shell.
“And remember, this was when there was no such thing as therapy dogs. I guess I was a pioneer!” she says. LaCour now volunteers with her dog, Roma.
Love on a Leash volunteers frequently visit the Communities at Oakwood, a residential facility for those with developmental disabilities. The dogs have been a success there, also.
“When the residents were given a choice of being with the dogs, seeing a movie, or going to a football game,” Sams says, “they chose the dogs.”
One woman at Oakwood, both blind and deaf, was heard laughing for the first time when visited by the dogs. Since then, she has become more and more expressive.
Another program special to LOAL is Indian Summer Camp for kids with cancer. Held each year in Camp Cedarmore in Bagdad in Shelby County, the camp brings together kids who are all facing cancer treatment. Begun through the Kentucky Cancer Program and now run by Friends of Indian Summer, camp activities include swimming, arts and crafts, music, sports, fishing, and now interaction with therapy dogs.
As Sams notes, the kids “make friends, laugh a lot, learn how to be a kid again—and realize they are not alone.”
Amy Steinkuhl, with the Kentucky Cancer Program in Lexington and director of the camp, says, “Groups like LOAL are such a blessing for our program. They enable us to offer unique and very magic moments to our campers, moments that can be seen in the smiles across their faces.”
So what kind of dog—or any other therapy animal—is best suited to become a therapy dog?
Norma Campbell of Somerset has evaluated dogs whose owners wanted to join the program. The requirements are pretty straightforward.
“The dog must be well-mannered, under control at all times, outgoing, with no aggression toward people or animals,” she says. Obedience classes aren’t necessarily needed, she says; it’s the dog’s basic temperament that’s most important.
“I had a lady who brought her dog in to be evaluated for the program, and she showed me all the tricks her dog could do. Well, that was great, but the dog was also totally out of control, and obviously didn’t have the temperament needed for a therapy dog.”
Evaluators test the dogs while they’re with other people and with other dogs because, as Sams says, “Dogs behave differently when out of their own home.” Dogs must pass a therapy dog evaluation and then the dog and handler team is monitored during 10 hours of therapy sessions in different settings. If all goes well, the dog/handler team is then certified by LOAL.
But most of the responsibility is placed on the owner.
“There’s a lot more to this than just taking your dog for a walk,” Sams says. A dog that may interact well with nursing home residents may not be as good with children, so different dogs will visit different places.
As Campbell puts it, “Some dogs are good in a structured setting, and others are more exuberant, so they go where they can bark and be more spontaneous.”
And it’s up to the owner to carefully watch the dog.
“You’ve got to constantly observe your dog,” Sams says, “to make sure he’s not showing signs of stress, such as yawning or panting. We’ve found that about an hour is the best amount of time to visit.”
Therapy dogs must also be prepared for behavior they may not be used to: rough handling by patients, big hugs, or children coming up from behind and startling them, another reason their temperament is so important. But therapy dogs often seem to understand what their job is, and are quite tolerant. Indeed, they love the attention.
The dogs have brought a lot of smiles and laughter to the cancer center, and when they come back, everybody will be glad to see them.
“I love Wednesdays,” says LaCour. “I look in the waiting room, and everybody’s smiling.”
KENTUCKY CHAPTERS OF LOAL
Kentucky Cancer Program
K-9 Pawsibilities Unleashed
Georgetown/Northern Kentucky Chapters
Good Dog Obedience & Behavior Modification
For more information about Indian Summer Camp:
Kentucky Cancer Program
(859) 219-0772 Ext. 265
If you'd like to donate
Neither Love on a Leash or Indian Summer Camp receives government funding: they are nonprofit organizations that rely on donations. For more information, contact LOAL in Somerset or the Indian Summer Camp in Lexington.