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Wellness comes in all shapes and sizes
Explore the world on therapy dogs with Zuri and Annabelle Dunn
Editor’s note: The names of those mentioned in the article below are changed to protect patient confidentiality.
Sam, a 3-year-old child who is autistic, hearing impaired, and non-verbal, has not spoken a word or uttered a sound including crying, or interacted with family members all his life. That is, not until he met Zuri, a 10-year-old mastiff and a certified therapy dog. Zuri let Sam explore her face, poke at her mouth, and grab her tongue and it was when Sam was holding Zuri’s tongue that everyone in the room heard him laugh for the first time. The teachers were shocked, and his parents were brought to tears. Soon, there was not a dry eye in Sam’s room.
Zuri and Annabelle, her great-niece, are both members of Therapy Dog International (TDI) – a volunteer organization that tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers. The requirements for TDI certification include age and health status of the dog, character of both dog and handler, the successful completion of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test along with TDI tests and exercises. Some of the exercises included in the TDI exercises are exposing the dog to noises such as a bedpan being dropped, people on crutches, in a wheelchair, or using a walker, and other sites and sounds of facility entrance/exit, rooms, and medical personnel.
Zuri is 1 of only 14 dogs certified at the highest level by TDI. Annabelle is only 5 years old, so she is working through the ranks. Both dogs are trained to respond to a person's needs. For example, they will put their head on a person's lap, sit, or lay to allow touching and poking. They even go so far as to identify a person in the room who needs more physical, emotional, or psychological contact. They work with adults and children of all ages and under various conditions. However, their type of work is not the only area for therapy dogs; many other therapy dogs work in other areas.
According to TDI, therapy dogs can be seen working in disaster locations as Disaster Stress Relief Dogs (DSRD), assisted living facilities, hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, schools, shelters, and libraries. Of all the facilities and locations, libraries seem to be out of place. What would a therapy dog be doing in a library? If Zuri and Annabelle could talk, they would tell you that one of their favorite programs is “Tail Waggin’ Tutors,” also known as Children Reading to Dogs.
Therapy dogs provide a relaxed atmosphere for children to practice reading skills. Why are dogs better at helping children than an adult? Because adults jump in to correct the child's pronunciation of a word or quickly say the word instead of letting the child work at saying it.1 This can create a negative atmosphere where the child feels embarrassed or always wrong. Sometimes, it is so discouraging that the child gives up trying to read. Therapy dogs provide a non-judgmental space that helps reduce the anxiety and stress a child feels when attempting to read. Not only does the child read more confidently and competently, but they can also concentrate on the words and the topic.
Isn't it wonderful to see the human-animal bond at work? Our profession understands the importance of this bond and how a person's well-being can be transformed by interacting with animals. For Sam, it meant that having a therapy dog was a priority which was made possible thanks to donations from his church, family, and local community. Zuri and Annabelle are not the all-work-and-no-play types of dogs; they also participate in parades where they proudly wear their therapy dog swag to bring attention to all the excellent work therapy dogs do. For all the work that, veterinary professionals do to encourage wellness care for dogs, it is amazing to see dogs providing wellness care to people and that shows how wonderful the world can be when we work to care for each other.
Therapy dogs bring up an important topic for the veterinary profession - the well-being of the veterinary team. Even though we are in contact with wonderful pets and various animals, many team members still suffer. A hospital cat or dog may not be enough, and the team needs additional support.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) developed a program to teach the veterinary team skills for a better workplace culture. The Workplace Wellbeing Certificate Program educates the team on positive emotions and responsive communication to help reduce stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout.2 Creating a well-being culture will require effort, but the payout is priceless. A healthy workplace culture can elevate your team to its highest level – where it can be enjoyable to come to work every day.
Louise Dunn is an award-winning speaker, writer, and consultant who brings over 40 years of in-the-trenches experience and business education to veterinary management. She is the founder and CEO of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting, which helps veterinarians develop strategic plans that consistently produce results.