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Dr. Dog

For some time now, Creature Comforts has focused on people in Kentucky who help animals. In this column, we look at the other side: animals helping people.

In Somerset, Wednesdays have become special days at the Lake Cumberland Cancer Treatment Center. 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. Kentucky has its own chapters in Somerset, Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville; Kentucky also has the distinction of being the state with the highest membership growth in the United States in 2004, or even in the history of Love on a Leash since being founded in 1984 by award-winning author and trainer Liz Palika.

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 Kentucky Cancer Program, “Animals can reach people when nothing else will.”

Gloria got interested in the program when she took her cocker spaniel, Joey, to a Lake Cumberland Kennel Club obedience class where trainer Liz Norris said that he would make a perfect therapy dog. Gloria 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 a year, the Love on a Leash chapter went from just three certified animals to its current 41 volunteers with 36 certified therapy pets. Gloria notes that there are so many people wanting to get their pet evaluated for the program that there is a waiting list.

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 Tammy. “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 here at the cancer center between a little boy named Matthew and a Border collie by the name of Diogee. Four-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,” Tom 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, “I can’t take credit, I didn’t make him; he’s just an incredible dog.”

A former social services worker in Canada, Angela 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 recently began making these visits with his collie mix, Xena. A cancer survivor himself, Ted read an article about Love on a Leash and decided to join.

“Xena’s new at this, she’s still learning,” says Ted, patting his dog. “She still has to get used to things.”

But Xena may have found her niche with children. Ted and Xena are regulars at the Pulaski County Public Library, where Xena listens to children read. Some of these children have a low literacy rate, or 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 Ted 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 Ted, “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, Cathy was working at a women’s residential treatment center; the women being treated here were very withdrawn and depressed. Even then, Cathy was bringing her dog to work with her, and she discovered that interaction with the dog was bringing 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. Cathy 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,” Gloria 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.

So what kind of dog—or any other therapy animal—is best suited to become a therapy dog?

Norma Campbell evaluates dogs whose owners want 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.”

Norma evaluates the dogs while they’re with other people and dogs because, as Gloria says, “Dogs behave differently when out of their own home.” Dogs must pass a 15-point evaluation, which is more stringent than most national standards. The dog and handler team is then monitored during 10 hours of therapy sessions in different settings. If all goes well, the dog/handler team is then certified and insured, another point of pride for Love on a Leash.

But a lot of the responsibility is placed on the owner as well.

“There’s a lot more to this than just taking your dog for a walk,” Gloria 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 Norma 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,” Gloria 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 today, and it’s time to go. But they’ll be back, and everybody will be glad to see them.

“I love Wednesdays,” says Cathy LaCour. “I look in the waiting room, and everybody’s smiling.”

Gloria Sams would like to extend her appreciation to the following organizations for their continued support of Love on a Leash—Somerset Community College, the Kentucky Cancer Program, Lake Cumberland Kennel Club, and First Christian Church, and as well as corporate sponsors Manchester Memorial Hospital, Midway Veterinary Center, Morning Rotary Club, & Sams Insurance Agency Inc.

For More Information

Love on a Leash
c/o Gloria Sams
Kentucky Cancer Program
501 College Street, Suite C
Somerset, KY 42501
(606) 679-7204

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