How Therapy Dogs Help People and the Story of Therapy Dog Icy
By Rachele Baker, DVM – I am very pleased to share a guest post written by Cathy Armato, a pet blogger whose blog is called Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them. Cathy left a successful corporate career in order to pursue her passion for helping animals and giving back to the community. She trained her Siberian Husky Icy to be a therapy dog and together they help people in need in their community.
How Therapy Dogs Help People and the Story of Therapy Dog Icy
By Catherine Armato
Several years ago I read an amazing book called Angel On A Leash by David Frei. You may know David as co-host of the Westminster Dog Show, but he is also a therapy dog handler and founder of the Angel On A Leash Therapy Dog Program. This book was so inspiring that it motivated me to want a therapy dog of my own so that I could help people the way David and his two Springer Spaniels had.
Right from the start, my Siberian Husky Icy had that rare, gentle, sweet disposition that made her ideally suited for the therapy dog role she would eventually have. The key attributes of a successful therapy dog are a gentle temperament, being well socialized, and solid obedience training. Icy inherently possessed the first quality but it was up to me to help her develop the socialization and obedience skills she would need as a therapy dog.
Icy just knows how to make people smile. Even people who are not “dog people” are drawn to her. I knew early on that becoming a therapy dog was somehow Icy’s calling, and I wanted to help her achieve that. So when Icy was 18 months old, I enrolled us in a class to prepare for the challenging requirements of the Pet Partners therapy dog evaluation. After a lot of training and socialization, we took the Pet Partners Therapy Dog evaluation test and became an official therapy dog team. I cannot think of a more rewarding, fun way to help people and give back to the community than with my sweet, gentle Siberian Husky Icy!
What is a therapy dog and how do they help people?
A therapy dog is not a service dog. Their job is mainly to offer comfort, emotional support, and smiles! Therapy dogs are known to have therapeutic effects on people. Interacting with a therapy dog can relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and improve the mood of someone who is feeling sad or depressed. As a therapy dog team, Icy and I have had the opportunity to help many people. Here are a few examples of the therapy dog work we do together.
Helping children improve reading skills
One of my favorite therapy dog assignments is the children’s reading program, where children read aloud one on one – to a dog! This concept is rapidly catching on all across the U.S. The reading program helps kids improve their reading skills in a fun, non-judgmental environment. When children are not good readers, they are often embarrassed to read aloud in the classroom, in front of friends, or even family members. They will often avoid reading altogether.
The U.S. Department of Education reported that children who have not developed basic literacy skills by the time they enter school are three to four times more likely to drop out in later years. A child needs to practice reading aloud in order to develop good reading skills. A therapy dog does not give them a grade or judge them in any way. They simply enjoy listening to the child read. A child does not have to feel self-conscious or intimidated when reading to a dog.
Here are some of the benefits of children reading out loud to a dog:
- Reading aloud helps children improve their reading skills significantly. The reading program motivates children to read aloud by providing an opportunity for them to read stories to therapy dogs.
- Therapy dogs are trained to interact in a calm, friendly way with children, relaxing them and enabling them to focus on the therapy dog rather than on their fear of reading out loud.
- Reading aloud helps the child improve reading skills and build confidence without fear of judgment or embarrassment. Therapy dogs help motivate reluctant readers who do not like to read or are afraid they will not read well.
Most importantly, it is FUN for the kids, the dog, and the parents!
Eric, one of the boys that reads to Icy, was so shy and uncomfortable when he started coming to our weekly reading program. He read so softly you could barely hear him, and he often read mumbling into his sleeve. After about a month or so, his reading improved significantly and his confidence level soared. Recently while he was reading to Icy, he was actually laughing at the story and thoroughly enjoying himself! It was wonderful to see the improvement – not only in his reading but in his confidence and enjoyment of reading as well.
One of the things that puzzled me when I first started in the reading program was that not all of the kids appeared to need help reading. In fact, some of them were excellent readers! That seemed a bit strange to me. Why would a child who had great reading skills want to spend their time after school or on Saturday afternoons at the library reading to a dog? One of my sisters had worked with at risk children. When I shared this information with my sister, she suggested that some of the good readers may be getting something different out of these visits. Although they were strong readers, they might have other issues such as not being socially adept and perhaps not having friends. I started paying more attention to the kids that were good readers and noticed that some of them did seem to lack social skills and have trouble communicating. I tried to do what I could to be especially warm and friendly to those kids and find ways to compliment them on their reading and other things.
One very sweet little girl was painfully self-conscious and shy. She wore extremely thick glasses and appeared to have slight physical limitations. She was wearing adorable sneakers with kittens on them. I told her that I loved her sneakers. As she calmly petted Icy, she began to relax and we had a nice conversation about how much she loved cats! She may not have needed help reading, but I think getting out in the world that day, interacting with a friendly dog, and having an enjoyable conversation about something she loved helped her feel more confident and social.
Helping college students relieve the stress of exams
College can be extremely stressful around mid-terms and final exams. Many colleges recognize how challenging it can be for students to deal with all that pressure and so they have enlisted therapy dogs to help. The therapy dogs visit the students to help relieve some of the stress the students are feeling and give them a break, allowing them to relax and unwind for awhile.
College students love when the therapy dogs come to visit! Many students have dogs back home that they miss terribly, especially when things get tough at school. Icy is always very popular with the students. They love her! Students usually start off by remarking on her gorgeous blue eyes and how sweet she is. As they enjoy petting her, they ask lots of questions such as how old she is, if she has a lot of energy, if she likes other dogs, and if she is spayed. Students who have a dog at home usually talk a lot about their own dogs and how much they miss them. They will often say they wish they could bring their dog to live in the dorms at school with them. You can quickly see the students relax and start laughing as Icy flops over for belly rubs and licks their noses when they get too close. They all whip out their cell phones to take selfies and group photos with her which they immediately send to their friends. There is always a huge turnout at the college stress buster events – they are very popular. There is a lot of energy and it is really fun!
Visiting senior citizens
One of our therapy dog visits is to a senior home. The seniors that live there range from those who need assistance with daily activities to Alzheimer’s patients that need constant supervision and a lot of care. I am amazed that even people who are in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease often remember how to interact with a dog. They say how cute the dog is and reach out to pet them. There are times they will not remember the names of all their family members, but they will remember that they had a dog as a child. There was one woman living in the senior home that always wanted to visit with Icy. She talked a lot about the dog she had as a child. From the way she talked about him, she must have loved her dog dearly.
Sometimes when visiting seniors, especially those suffering from dementia or who are minimally responsive, our visit can mean even more to the family than the senior. Seeing their elderly parent respond and react in a normal way to a dog means so much to them. It seems to give them hope.
I know Icy enjoys our therapy work as much as I do. She is always so excited when I put her vest on and load her into the car. She knows she is going to meet new people and be the center of attention. It is adorable when she noses one of the children if they pause their reading, as if to say “Hey, keep reading! I want to know what happens next!” and the kids (and their parents!) just start giggling! It always elicits laughter when she suddenly licks a senior’s nose to sneak them a tiny kiss!
Being a therapy dog handler is one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done. It is awe inspiring to see the human-animal bond at work through therapy dogs.
Thank you, Cathy, for sharing your wonderful story about therapy dog work and Icy with us!