Paw Power

By Mercedes Cordero – April 1, 2015
Photography by Travis Perkins

Dogs have been man’s best friend for centuries. Always bringing joy to their owners and love and light to those people—both familiar and foreign faces—who need it most in their life. That love and light, mixed in with a lot of help and hope, is exactly what therapy dogs bring with them on every volunteer visit they make.  

For as many dog breeds that exist in the world, there are just as many unique abilities, talents, and personalities to match. There are hunting dogs, search and rescue dogs, and dogs that assist the blind, deaf, and physically challenged. One thing they all have in common though is the special bond created with their human counterparts. It is undeniable and unconditional; a connection that contributes to the mental and emotional health of both members involved. 

According to a study published in the American Journal of Critical Care, a person holding or petting an animal lowers blood pressure, releases strain and tension, and helps draw a person out from loneliness and depression. 

Interacting with therapy dogs can have a similar affect—releasing various neurotransmitters like oxytocin, dopamine, and cortisol; those chemicals in the brain that make us humans happy. These neurotransmitters are linked with bonding and the decrease of immunosuppressants associated with stress. 

Like most dogs, therapy dogs give affection and comfort to people, but they differ in that they are trained to bring that healing energy to those dealing with disabilities in retirement homes, nursing homes, hospitals, and schools.

Mike Pizinger, owner of two Labrador Retrievers, Amstel and Shiner, has logged more than 400 visits over the course of five years to different sites around town. Amstel has been a therapy dog since 2009, volunteering at the Rawson Saunders School—the only full-curriculum school in Austin geared exclusively toward educating students with dyslexia. “They have a reading program [at the school] where just me and my dog are paired up with a student. Amstel will sit next to the student as they read and it helps calm them down so they don’t feel so self-conscious about their reading skills,” said Pizinger. By reading to a dog instead of a person, it helps the children relax and focus more—encouraging them to build self-confidence by taking away their fear of not reading well.

There are high standards that come with the territory of being a therapy dog. Just a couple of the training requirements include a temperament test (essentially testing to see if the dog has the personality suitable for all types of environments) as well as an obedient skills test. Amstel and Shiner have both received their AKC Canine Good Citizen title—a 10-step, gold standard achievement for good dog behavior.

At Divine Canines, a local therapy dog training program, pups must go through a five-week training session before they are allowed to test for certification. During this time, they are taught to behave well around other dogs and how to effectively use their enhanced sense of sight, smell, and hearing. One of the first training challenges: tennis balls. “Most dogs think tennis balls are for playing, so we have to train them to not go after them when they see them on walkers,” said Max Woodfin, executive director of Divine Canines. Allowing the dogs and their owners to train on-site exposes them to real-life situations that training in a classroom can’t replicate. 

Along with on-site training, the dogs and owners have take home assignments that help work on their temperament and behavioral skills including normal commands like “sit” and “stay.” This allows them to work on and strengthen weaknesses before progressing to the next stage of the program. 

Paul Mann has been a dog trainer for eleven years and teaches all types of dogs and instructs all types of owners. Mann, who received his bachelor’s degree in psychology, wanted to help people and chose to focus his attention on the special relationship that exists between canines and humans. “The most rewarding thing [about therapy training] is being able to help both people and dogs [at the same time],” Mann said. “Being on-site and seeing the huge smiles from the patients when they are with the dogs—that’s what makes everything worthwhile.”

During his orientation classes, he knows which dogs are cutout to be therapy dogs after taking them through a stress and behavioral test. “That’s typically where I can evaluate them and see if they have the skills before moving on,” Mann said.

Heidi Armstrong is the owner of Bella, a Rhodesian Ridgeback. The duo has been volunteering since 2004 and Armstrong says what keeps them going is the bridge—the bond—that develops between patient and pet. “To see someone who hasn’t spoken a word in six weeks look at the dog and look safe and happy enough to start speaking is touching to me. It’s pretty magical,” Armstrong said of their therapy visits. Bella is one of a very small group of dogs in the United States that has earned the highest honor for a therapy dog— THDD (Therapy Dog Distinguished)—from the American Kennel Club. In order to receive this honor, the dog and handler must have accumulated more than 400 lifetime visits. So far, Bella has racked up almost 600 visits.

The two volunteer once a month at the Fort Hood Army Base in Killeen. While there, Bella gets to interact with soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Once, Armstrong was assigned to work on a soldier who was pointed out to her as “that tough guy over there.” The soldier was walking underneath a grouping of old growth oak trees. When Bella and Armstrong approached him, he took a few steps back. He was hesitant of them and didn’t want to be near the dog. Over the course of the next hour, Armstrong—with Bella sitting by her side—learned the soldier was apprehensive at first because a dog had attacked his brother as a child. It wasn’t long before he was petting and playing with Bella. “The occupational therapist [at the base] told me later that the soldier had been in therapy for eight weeks and had yet to speak more than six words,” Armstrong said. 

Ever since the 1970’s, dogs have been walking right along side humans—as a hunter, a protector, and a helping hand. 

While it’s expected for dog trainers and owners to feel a sense of pride and gratification in their pet’s therapy visits, the dogs are the ones the people want to see—the ones with whom they share a special bond. No matter their age, when a person sees a therapy dog like Amstel, Shiner, or Bella enter the room, all they really see is a best friend.



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