The residents of Hawthorn Court at Ahwatukee may not remember much, but when they get a visit from a local dog, it seems to unlock something in their brain.
“They don’t remember a lot of times what they did 10 minutes ago, but they remember the dogs they had as children,” said Mare Stotts, programs director at Hawthorn Court. “They can tell you the dogs they had. Sometimes they even remember the name. It brings back memories for them.”
Hawthorn Court, a senior assisted living center that specializes in caring for the cognitively impaired, has had visits from therapy dogs since it first opened more than 10 years ago in Ahwatukee. Currently, there are about seven dogs that come for visits, which averages out to two or three visits from a dog per week.
“It’s very rewarding to see the ladies’ faces light up,” said Toni Salcido, who brings her dog Milo to visit about once a week. “He goes straight to the ones that want to pet him. Some of the ladies kiss him. He just puts his head on their lap and enjoys it.”
Lisa Pomraning brings her dog Truffles to visit the center once a week. She said she has been so touched when a resident who is normally nonverbal will speak to Truffles.
“One lady doesn’t normally say anything and she was petting him saying, ‘My dog, my dog,’ ” she said “It’s just the most amazing thing. They just relax.”
The Companion Animal Association of Arizona (CAAA) tests pets and certifies them for these types of visits. While it’s not a difficult process, it is thorough. The dogs can’t be easily spooked and must be friendly with strangers of all ages. Among other things, they must be well-groomed and walk calmly on a leash.
Nancy Parker, CAAA board member, said there’s always a need for more owners and dogs willing to volunteer some time to visit with those in need. The association gets requests from groups around the Valley for visits, and right now it is unable to meet the demand.
“The people that bring their therapy dogs are special people in themselves,” she said. “Their love that they have for the people they are visiting shows through their dogs. The dog feels that. I don’t know if the dog gets it from them or they get it from their dog, but the people that do this are such kind-hearted people. Their love for animals and people shows through in their visits.”
Therapy dogs visit a variety of locations and volunteers can choose where and when they visit. Most visits are less than an hour.
“It’s not hard,” Pomraning said. “It’s a really easy thing. There are certain things you have to check off the list, but if you have a dog that is just a love, you’re probably good. You just have to have a heart for it. It’s flexible. You can do it every week or every other week. It can be a half-hour. A small amount of time and it just makes you feel good.”
For those interested in whether their dog or pet would make a good therapy volunteer, visit www.caaainc.org or call (602) 258-3306.
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Requirements for Therapy Dogs
Minimum age: 1 year
Basic training requirements:
• Walks calmly on leash without pulling
• Attentive to handler (e.g., watches handler, waits for direction, responds to commands)
• If overexcited at any point, calms down in response to handler’s guidance and commands
• Doesn’t jump or put paws on people or beds, unless invited by handler
• Doesn’t lick or give kisses without being invited and will stop when told to do so
• Responds to basic commands such as sit, down or stand still; responds to a “leave it” type of command, when tempted with food, trash cans, etc.
• Doesn’t eliminate or relieve him/herself inappropriately, especially indoors. This includes territorial and scent marking and submissive urination
• Shows absolutely no signs of aggression, including over food or toward people or other animals
• Shows no excessive fear or anxiety; recovers quickly, if startled
• Comfortable with and adaptable to: strangers, including people with awkward movements; groups of people; strange environments with strange smells, sounds (e.g., public address systems; shouting voices; noisy carts); unfamiliar equipment (e.g., walkers, wheelchairs, floor polishers); unusual touching (e.g., palsied hand movement, having his/her body manipulated by handler to position it to interact)
• Well-groomed (including odor-free; clean, clipped nails; no ticks, fleas)
• On a collar free of decorations or tags that could scratch a resident
• No spike or pinch collars are allowed. A cloth or nylon collar is preferred
• Always on a leash: a short leash (3 feet or less) is recommended for working dogs in a facility (no retractable leads or long lines)
While passing the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test is not a requirement, it covers most of the behaviors needed in social pet therapy dogs. It can serve as a good reference point to help owners evaluate their dog. For more information, visit www.akc.org/events/cgc/training_testing.cfm
*Cats and other species are evaluated by similar standards for behavior and temperament.
Information from www.caaainc.org.