Therapy dogs make difference

PARKERSBURG – The red bandana on that dog isn’t just a fashion statement.

It means the dog is part of Therapy Dogs International, an organization dedicated to bringing therapeutic aid to people in facilities and other circumstances, according to Charmaine Dotson, local Therapy Dogs International certified member.

Once dogs are certified as therapy dogs, they get a red bandana to wear while working, Dotson said. The dogs are taken to locations where they are requested and interact with the people they find there, she said.

Sometimes all someone needs to feel better is a dog by their side, Dotson said.

Studies have shown that using therapy dogs to visit people in public places causes lowered blood pressure and promotes relaxation, Dotson said. The dogs’ relieve agitation, anxiety and stress and improve communication between humans, she said.

“The dogs always seem to know when someone is asleep or when they aren’t alert. They will nudge them with their noses and wake them up and the person almost always smiles to see a dog there,” said Dotson.

Dotson, 66, frequently works with Peggy Squires, 67, and Shirley Fisher, 78.

“We all went to Columbus on the same day two years ago and got certified at the same time,” Dotson said.

Becoming certified requires passing exams at a Therapy Dogs International testing facility, Dotson said.

All dogs in the program have to complete advanced obedience training, including mastering riding in elevators, navigating around IV poles in nursing homes and learning the command “leave it” to keep them from accidentally grabbing a dropped pill, Dotson said.

The dogs have their personalities assessed, including how they react around small children and unexpected loud noises, such as metal pans hitting the floor, Dotson said.

Dotson’s dog, Murphy, is an 8-year-old rescued collie. Murphy has been working as a therapy dog for two years and enjoys trying to herd his visitors by walking around them, which is natural for a collie, Dotson said.

Squires’ dogs are Duke, a 13-year-old golden retriever mix, and Ralph, a 6-year-old yellow lab. Both have been working as therapy dogs for two years and they often work together, Squires said.

Duke has made more than 50 visits as a therapy dog, earning him the title of Canine Good Citizen through the American Kennel Club, Squires said.

Ralph was still two visits shy of the 50-visit requirement to earn his Canine Good Citizen title in early April, Squires said.

Fisher’s dog, Jasmine, is a 5-year-old West Highland White Terrier, she said. Jasmine has obedience and rally titles from the AKC, Fisher said.

Together, the four dogs wandered the front foyer of the Worthington Nursing and Rehabilitation Center for almost an hour, rubbing against the residents present for the visit.

Jasmine jumped into the laps of residents and offered kisses and a wagging tail, which brought smiles to numerous faces.

Duke and Ralph made their rounds together, leaning on either side of a resident, begging to be petted at the same time. Until the squirrel outside distracted them, but they were soon back on the job.

Murphy offered his paw to anyone in the room, wanting to shake hands every few seconds while being led from resident to resident.

Animals trained through Therapy Dogs International don’t have to be purebred, Dotson said. All the dogs need to have is a great attitude and a thorough training in obedience, she said.

As licensed dogs through Therapy Dogs International, these four dogs work with their owners, sometimes in a one-on-one setting, in area hospitals, assisted living homes, hospice locations, schools, libraries, funerals, and at community events, public and private corporations and community outreach programs, Dotson said.

Amid the laughter of the afternoon at Worthington Nursing and Rehabilitation, these four dogs proved their value as the residents smiled, cuddled the dogs, and spoke happily with each other and the dogs’ handlers while nursing staff looked on.

The handlers are always alert for the needs of the dogs during visits, watching them for signs of fatigue or stress at all times, Dotson said. Those signs include excessive panting, yawning or wanting to avoid someone, she said.

Even though it is tiring, the dogs love their work as much as their owners love working with them.

“The dogs are always excited to come though,” Dotson said. “Every time I put on my red Therapy Dogs International shirt, Murphy jumps up and is anxious to go see who he will visit today,” she said.