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Therapy Dogs – and Their Owners – Move in Two Worlds

Doing good deeds and doing good work are not mutually exclusive in the human world, nor do they seem to be in the canine world. Many a dog heads out one weekend to an agility match, then to the nursing home or library the next. At least that’s the case with a number of the performance dogs whose owners I’ve interviewed over the last year.

So I asked Pet Partners, formerly known as “Delta Society,” to suggest a couple of therapy dogs who also compete in performance rings. Pet Partners screens and trains pet owners who want to help make peoples’ lives better through a visit with a dog, cat or other animal. Pet Partners introduced me to Ginger, who ministers to the elderly around Maple Valley, Wash., with Sue Olson, and to ‘Iggy’ and ‘Dooley,’ who, along with their owner Laurel Rabschutz, mix it up with college students at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Laurel’s been visiting older, sick and stressed people with Newfoundlands for more than two decades. Of the two dogs she has right now, her Newfoundland Dooley, Threepond’s As Time Goes By, RA, WD, is definitely the “rock star,” she says. Named after Dooley Wilson who played Sam in “Casablanca,” the almost 4-year-old Newfie passed the test to be a therapy dog just after his first birthday. In addition to his Rally Advance and Water Dog titles, he is working toward his intermediate title in musical freestyle.

Threepond’s As Time Goes By, RA, WD, ‘Dooley,’ does a water retrieve. In addition to water tests and rally obedience, the 4-year-old Newfoundland visits the University of Connecticut to help college students de-stress. Photo by Donna Kelliher.

“There’s really a joy in sharing the bond you have with your dogs with others,” she says, about their therapy work. “It’s also a nice way to give back to your community. It gives you a real sense of doing a little community service, and at the same time you get to have a great time with your dog.” Although Laurel focused on nursing homes, geriatric hospitals, children affected by substance abuse and Reading Education Assistance Dog programs for many years, today she, Dooley and Iggy, Portuguese Water Dog Sequel’s Igor Fyodorovich, CD, RE, spend most of their therapy time at the University of Connecticut, where she is a degree auditor.

Joyful Tails De-Stress College Students

Campus work for Tails for Joy – the local pet-assisted therapy group Laurel belongs to – began when college students would visit a nursing home or do a program for kids with disabilities, she explains. The dogs would go along to assist. They also provided stress relief to competitors in Special Olympics events on campus.

The library at the University of Connecticut hosts the Paws to Relax program during exam week. Here ‘Iggy,’ Portuguese Water Dog Sequel’s Igor Fyodorovich, CD, RE, gets some love from a student. Photo courtesy of the University of Connecticut.

Then, in 2010, the college’s library started Paws to Relax, a program that took dogs into the library during exam week so students could de-stress by petting and playing with the dogs. “The first time we did the library program, we show up, and there are maybe five or 10 students. They started texting, and then there were 50 students.” When they arrived for the first day of the next exam week, a library staffer told them, “You’ve already got a crowd here.” Tails for Joy provides dogs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for five days in a row twice a year. “That’s been really wonderful,” Laurel says. “The program is really well-received.”

Based on the success of exam week, Tails for Joy started doing dormitory visits. They’re important, Laurel says, because they give students “the whole human-animal bond as part of the college experience. We forget that students are away at an institution, away from their families, away from their pets, so they’re perfect populations for this type of thing.” For the dorm visits, the dogs and their owners go to a public area in the dormitory, such as a lounge or recreation room. “There will usually be a crowd waiting,” she says. The visits are arranged by the dorm’s resident advisors, and all of the residents are notified in advance. Where the animals are is marked, so that students who don’t want to be involved or who have a fear of dogs can steer clear.

Although the campus visits are a bit easier on Iggy – because the dorms tend to be warm and space is limited, and he’s smaller with less hair – “Dooley is always the crowd-pleaser,” Laurel says. “In the college setting, Newfoundlands are always a curiosity piece.”

Dooley and Iggy are working on the intermediate leg of their musical freestyle titles under the auspices of the World Canine Freestyle Organization. Photo by Dot Drobney.

In the Water and on the Dance Floor

Dooley’s not a curiosity at all when he’s doing his water work. “It’s a lot of fun because you’re working with them, their instincts and their natural abilities,” Laurel says. While Dooley’s working on further Water Dog titles, Iggy, at 2, is “just swimming and playing. We’re very fortunate that we live very close to a breeder who has a large pond on her property, and she very graciously allows us to use the pond.”

The big dog’s also comfortable on a shiny floor, moving around to music, in a canine event known as “musical freestyle.” He made his debut at 6 months of age. Not to be left behind, Iggy’s working on his intermediate freestyle title too.

Dooley is surrounded by adoring fans during exam week at the University of Connecticut where Laurel Rabschutz works and volunteers. Photo courtesy of the University of Connecticut.

Laurel explains how she got into the sport: “I was doing obedience with my dogs, and a little agility. My Newfie I had at the time was about a year or 2 old. I wondered what I could do with him that would be a fun thing for him.” She saw a freestyle demonstration when she went to the Gaines obedience trials. “This was before WCFO [World Canine Freestyle Organization] existed. No one was really doing it yet.” She saw Donna Durford do a routine, and it turned out she lived right across the state border in Massachusetts. “I’ve always loved music and dance,” Laurel says, so she contacted Durford. “She was just thrilled to hear from me and we became good friends. We established a nice group of people in this area. We still perform together after all these years, mostly for community organization and fundraisers,” she says.

Regardless of the activity, “We certainly do have a good time together,” Laurel says.

Next on her list? Some draft work for Dooley.

Mixed-breed Ginger makes her way through the weave poles on an agility course. Photo courtesy of Sue Olson.

From Agility to Assistance

Ginger, who is some mix of Golden Retriever, Border Collie and Beagle, at a minimum, has been visiting assisted living facilities and nursing homes with Sue Olson since she was 4 to 6 years old. Because she was rescued, Sue doesn’t know the dog’s actual age. It was six years ago, though, that Sue had Ginger in an agility class and another class member commented that she’d be a “great therapy dog,” Sue remembers.

“I don’t do anything halfway,” Sue says. “The next day, I had the books. I completed the course and testing within three months.” She and Ginger have been sharing the dog’s friendly affection with people ever since.

Ginger and Sue Olson visit people in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Photo courtesy of Sue Olson.

“What I like about it the most is how she makes people feel,” Sue says. “And how they start talking to her and telling stories about their dogs. A lot of times older people don’t get a lot of visitors, and it means so much to them to have her come. When I see a patient roll out that smile, it makes me tear up.”

Sometimes, Sue says, the older people think their own dog has come back to visit them. “She’s been called Midnight; she’s been called Lucky. They’ll just hug her.”

Ginger also helps people undergoing rehabilitation of one kind or another. “The dogs actually work with the therapists,” Sue says. One day, Sue put Ginger in a Down-Stay at the feet of a woman, who then had to reach down, brush Ginger, then sit up again. “Ginger didn’t know it, but she was teaching her how to put on her pants” while seated, Sue explains.

The 70-pound dog often gets right into bed with the people she visits. In fact, that’s Ginger’s favorite thing, Sue says. “It’s break time.” Sue recalls one man who was nearing the end of his life in a hospice situation. “He used to tell us about having a dog named Pal.” At Sue’s instruction, Ginger hopped up into the man’s bed, and “just laid with him for half an hour while he petted and talked to her. He passed away a few days later.”

Ginger enjoys getting into bed with her friends, as much as they like snuggling up to her. Photo courtesy of Sue Olson.

Sue and Ginger go visiting every other week, following that schedule mainly because she must be bathed before each visit. They visit just one facility on any given day as the work is tiring. “When we first started, she could only work about an hour, then she was very tired.” Sue thinks this is for two reasons. First, the dogs can’t really be dogs while they’re visiting. They must be quiet and behave – no running, barking or other dog-like activities. The second reason, Sue thinks, is because the atmosphere can be quite negative. “A lot of times people are upset. One lady was filling out her end-of-life forms,” she explains.

Before getting into canine-assisted therapy, the retired insurance claim manager competed in both obedience and agility with other dogs.

Ginger was one of the first mixed breeds to get an AKC therapy dog title. Sue enrolled her in the Canine Partners Program as soon as it was launched. Both the older dog and Sue’s “puppy,” a 1½-year-old Italian Greyhound, Corgi, Australian Cattle Dog mix, compete in agility with the North American Dog Agility Council.

Though Sue started out in obedience with a Doberman Pinscher, she says she likes agility because “it’s like running and playing with your dog in the park. It’s an excellent team-building thing. When you run agility, you really feel like you’re at one with your dog.”

Still, it makes for a busy schedule, even though Sue’s retired. “My dogs go to three classes a week. We have our therapy work. Animals have done so much for me. They keep you emotionally stable as much as they can. They help you through every day. Without them, I wouldn’t have gone to the places I’ve gone; I wouldn’t have met the people I’ve met. It’s just great being able to do this stuff.”

Next for Sue’s animal-associated activity is a therapy cat. “I did have a cat that did it,” she says. “Pif would just sit there and purr. The ladies would say, “pretty kitty, pretty kitty.”

It seems unlikely that Sue or Laurel will give up their therapy work or sports competition anytime soon.

Laurel sums it up: “Every activity that we do is something else that we can share our time together. Bring it on. We just love it.”

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.

2 Comments to “Therapy Dogs – and Their Owners – Move in Two Worlds”

  1. Judi McMahon says:

    My Irish Terrier, Faolin, who is now 10 years old, became a therapy dog after completing her AKC Championship in conformation. As well as being “stunning” in the show ring, she has the perfect personality for being a therapy dog and loves to visit older people as well as children. I’m very proud of her.

  2. Dot Drobney says:

    How great to see this article on the different lives of therapy dogs and their owners – and to see one of my photos of Dooley and Laurel in the article. I always have a great time taking photos of the ladies at their Canine Freestyle Dance meets. If you’d like to see more – there are several galleries on my website at http://www.ddrobneyphotography.com

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