Training A Therapy Dog
Once a week, Susanna Beirich and her dog, Toby, pull up to a hospital in Temple, TX. With his tail wagging, the 4-year-old Spaniel mix bounds out of the car wearing his little red therapy vest and offers a nuzzle to everyone he meets. "Patients line up outside with their wheelchairs and walkers waiting for us to show up, they're so excited," Susanna marvels. As he walks down the halls, the cheer he spreads is visible in the smiles and pats he receives. "Just being in his presence is healing," she adds.
Susanna, 44, knows this firsthand. A few years ago, Toby was taking care of her. In August of 2010, Susanna needed major surgery to address inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), an autoimmune disorder that left her with crippling pain and fatigue. She returned to her Killeen, TX, home weak and exhausted. And although she had her husband, Mark, a sergeant first class in the army, and her two sons, Joshua, now 12, and Zachary, 16, to help her with the recovery, the process was brutal. It was Toby—22 pounds of cuddly companionship that the family had adopted just a year earlier from a shelter—who was her greatest comfort.
"My doctors urged me to walk for 15 minutes every 4 hours to prevent complications," Susanna explains. "Toby would lie with me when I needed to rest, but many times a day, he'd head over to where his leash is kept, bark and wait. He inspired me to keep getting up, because I knew we both needed our exercise."
Susanna's experience of feeling better with Toby at her side is not unique. Research shows that spending quality time with an animal is linked with reduced blood pressure and perception of pain, improved heart attack recovery rates, and heightened levels of the "feel-good" hormone oxytocin.
Three months later, while Susanna was recovering from a second surgery, she read a newspaper story about therapy dogs visiting wounded soldiers at a nearby hospital. "But the dogs could only come once a month, because they lived 60 miles away," Susanna says. The article made her think of her own husband's service abroad—he was about to be deployed to Iraq—and how she needed something positive to do while he was away. She realized that Toby, who is superfriendly, would make an excellent therapy dog. "Toby had been my own therapy. He had helped me to heal; I wanted to bring that same joy and comfort to others."
So Susanna signed Toby up foran 18-week program at her local PetSmart, so he could earn his American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certificate, which many hospitals require. Susanna helped Toby master skills such as sitting still for 2 minutes despite distractions and walking past food without gobbling it. After receiving his certificate, Susanna and Toby enrolled in a second class for dog-and-handler teams, which wouldprepare them both for an evaluation by a private therapy dog organization, Therapy Dogs, Inc. Motivated by his favorite organic liver-flavored treats, Toby learned in a simulated hospital setting to be cautious near oxygen tubing, and comfortable around wheelchairs and noisy medical equipment.
By February 2012, Susanna and Toby had passed their certification test with Therapy Dogs. Now, when Susanna takes Toby to make his rounds—he's worked in nursing homes and various hospitals where he gently noses his way into each of the rooms he regularly visits—she's continually amazed by the response he gets. Paralyzed or arthritic residents "pet" Toby as he rubs his head under their hands, and other patients who typically wrestle with expressing emotions light up as they stroke his fur. "One woman in her early 50s who is recovering from a life-threatening disease refused to come out of her room until Toby and I started visiting," Susanna says. "Now she's in the activity room every Friday waiting for us! When you're sick, it's an effort to interact with people," Susanna explains. "But with therapy dogs, no conversation is necessary. Patients are able to communicate with Toby simply by touching him."
As for Susanna, she's grateful to Toby for healing her, physically and emotionally. "It's a true blessing, not only to have recovered from those surgeries but also to be of service to others," Susanna says.
Video: How To Prepare A Dog For Therapy Dog Training
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