Dogs – our best friends, and thanks to a national program supported by United Way, they can be there to help those in need.
The therapy dog program was established nationally in 1998 and has grown to involve 3,500 dogs spending 275,000 hours with residents in long-term care, hospital patients, children and students and even victims or witnesses in court cases.
Interactions with dogs have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, calm nerves, and increase a sense of well-being. Canines even have the power to connect with people living with dementia or other conditions that drive isolation.
The agency’s therapy dog program is built entirely upon volunteer handlers who want to bring their furry friends out to community settings. But first, the dogs are extensively evaluated to ensure their temperament and training are suitable for the program.
“Happy-go-lucky, friendly dogs who love to meet new people but can be calm while doing that are ideal,” says Jenn, who is a volunteer coordinator for the program in her region.
The dogs are of all breeds and run the gamut from tiny lap dogs to gentle giants.
The support from United Way “is absolutely incredible” and keeps the program running, says Jenn. It allows handlers and dogs to be outfitted in agency-branded gear that clearly indicate they are a therapy dog team. It also covers the costs of holding evaluation sessions.
Jenn had a golden retriever who loved to visit high school during exams so students could have “bark breaks.”
“You see these teenagers coming into the library, and they look so stressed and it’s like they’re in a different world. And then a dog goes up to them and puts their nose under their hands and they change to these joyful teenagers who are just so excited to see and pet these dogs. It’s just amazing the relaxation that they get from the dogs.”
In long-term care homes, it’s not uncommon for residents to tear up when the dogs arrive but that quickly changes to big smiles, says Jenn.
Some residents don’t remember human names, but they remember the dog that’s come to visit.
Dogs also sit alongside struggling young readers, helping them gain the confidence they need.
“We are proud of our program because it helps so many people,” says Lou, regional community service coordinator at the agency. “It’s that endorphin rush people get when they rub that belly, or scratch that ear, and that tail is wagging with so much force they can tell the love is there. That really is the magic to our program.”