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A doggone comforting slice of normalcy

Alyna Stewart approached the big, black dog cautiously.

Her timidity did not last long. Within seconds, the 6-year-old sunk to her knees, wrapped her arms around Dexter’s neck, then took his leash and ran alongside the black Labrador and border collie mix. She laughed, as carefree as any other little girl playing with a dog.

This scene, however, was far from ordinary.

Alyna is recovering from throat surgery; Dexter is a specially trained therapy dog who visits Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville every Monday.

“What a beautiful distraction,” said Erin Tumulty, 27, as her daughter Alyna and son Marcus, 4, fed treats to Dexter, shrieking with delight each time the dog’s nose brushed against their hands. “It’s been a rough day for her. She found out this morning that she’s not going home today. But look — she’s full of smiles now.”

At hospitals, special-needs schools and assisted-living facilities, therapy dogs such as Dexter provide a slice of normalcy for those suffering a variety of ailments.

At Children’s alone, 27 licensed therapy dogs visit the hospital regularly. On any given day, at least one dog makes rounds, stopping in hospital rooms to sit and interact with patients, said Kevin Urda, the hospital’s Volunteer Services Department coordinator.

“There is a connection between an animal — especially a dog — and a child that is hard to put into words,” Urda said. “When they see the therapy dogs, it could be the first time they’ve smiled since they came here. They tell things to the dogs they maybe wouldn’t tell their parents or nurses. They actually have little conversations with them.

“It’s a beautiful thing to watch,” he said. “A dog is a friend … a stuffed animal come to life, if you will.”

For the young and young at heart

Therapy dogs can help all ages.

At Arden Courts of Monroeville, where residents suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia to varying degrees, therapy dogs visit often — and some residents’ dogs are allowed to visit or live at the facility, said Suzanne Kline, program services coordinator.

“Engaging their senses, by seeing, hearing, petting and playing with the animals plays a crucial role in prolonging the disease progression,” added Anna Patton, marketing director.

It may seem like an easy job, but therapy dogs go through hours of difficult training and must pass strict tests and evaluations to gain certification, said Marcy Fenell, a volunteer at Animal Friends shelter in Ohio Township.

First and foremost, a potential therapy dog must love people, Fenell said. But they must be able to harness that love. For example, they should never jump on a young patient or a senior, or get overly excited. Therapy dogs must be confident and show zero signs of aggression, Fenell said.

During testing, Fenell and other instructors place the dogs in situations aimed at challenging their training and temperament.

They expose them to crutches, wheelchairs and medical equipment. They must stay focused on their handlers, even when distracted by shrieking children, slamming doors or other startling noises. They have to accept all forms of handling without getting agitated, including someone touching their ears and paws. They must be clean and well-groomed, and they have to maintain composure even when separated from their owners.

Above all, they must follow orders — including sit, stay and come — under any condition.

“The owner has to always be in control of the dog,” Fenell said. “And the dog has to want to do it. Not all dogs want to do this, even if they’re well-trained. It’s inherent in the dog.”

Any breed can make a good therapy dog, she said.

“I’ve seen pit bulls, Dobermans — dogs people would not think would be a good visiting dog, but they’re phenomenal,” Fenell said. “It’s definitely the dog itself — not the breed.”

Dogs cannot test for certification until they are a year old. Even if they pass, further scrutiny awaits.

At Children’s, certified therapy dogs are examined again by a veterinarian, “to make sure the dog is the right match,” Urda said.

Dexter proves regularly that he is a perfect match for Children’s.

On a recent visit, he jumped onto a bed and sat calmly as Nevaeh Davis, 2, of Fayetteville, W.Va., laughed, clapped her hands and tugged on his ears.

Nevaeh — a name her mother, Kimberly Davis, came up with by spelling “Heaven” backwards — was born with a hole in her skull, which led to brain abnormalities. In her short life, Nevaeh has had multiple craniotomies and likely will need more, Davis said.

But with Dexter smiling up at her and lapping up treats from her shaking hands, Nevaeh no longer acted like a sick little girl.

“The first time they brought Dexter in, she was in ICU, she had low sodium levels, and she was very lethargic,” Davis said, holding her daughter on her lap. “But she saw that dog and beamed right up.

“I decided right there that she’s getting a dog when we go home. I think she’s going to do wonderfully with a dog.”

Find out more

For more information on therapy dogs or to schedule a visit, contact your local animal shelter, call Therapy Dogs United at (814) 456-DOGS (3647) or visit www.therapydogsunited.org .


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