Paws for compassion: Therapy dogs help those in need

Heads turn when Sam walks by. And he's never shy about returning the attention.

"Sometimes Sam and I will be walking and he'll pull toward someone and lean against them," says Kathy Rademacher, owner of Sam, a certified pet therapy dog. "Then they'll smile and say 'Oh, I needed that.'"

Rademacher owns and handles Sam, a four-year-old golden retriever who serves as one of 15 pet therapy animals at Sparrow Hospital. He's among the increasing number of dogs who leverage the natural bond between humans and canines to lighten the days of children and adults living within challenging circumstances.

"Pet therapy is growing in popularity," says Tracy Feazel, volunteer coordinator at Sparrow. "We're seeing the benefit of pet therapy and how it can reduce stress in patients as well as in the caregiver. Dogs just have a way of knowing when somebody needs them."
Canine companionship
Pet therapy is making headlines. In Greater Lansing, therapy dogs wag their tails at places like Sparrow, hospices, long-term care facilities, Ele's Place, student study areas at colleges and universities and public libraries. School districts like DeWitt and newcomers Waverly and Eaton Rapids are also welcoming the four-legged therapists to classrooms and playgrounds.

While their professional attire is seldom more than a bandana, pet therapy dogs have credentials. Many have passed a "good canine citizen" test through the American Kennel Club. Most are certified through organizations like Therapy Dogs International, a non-profit volunteer group that regulates, tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers. And all have natural instincts for caring.

Jack is a veteran of the dog therapy pack, having earned his stripes with TDI and as an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen in 2009. His "business card" created by his handler, Judy Winter, sports his full-color picture and credentials, and describes him as a gentle and loving Australian Shepherd, Bernese Mountain Dog and Border Collie mix who was featured in Cesar Millan's magazine Cesar's Way.

"He's mellow and people want to hug him," adds Winter. "He's everything you want in a therapy dog."

Jack currently visits kids at three DeWitt elementary schools, Ele's Place, and provides spur-of-the-moment therapy to countless people on the streets and through occasional visits to requested public places. He's also part of the central staff for the Eric 'RicStar' Winter Music Therapy Camp at the Michigan State University Community Music School—a weeklong event that Winter coordinates in honor of her son Eric, who passed away in 2003. 

Jack and Winter found each other six years ago when she was volunteering as a photographer at the Capital Area Humane Society.

"I fell in love at first sight," says Winter of the wounded, year-old shelter pooch. "He has dirty paws, an adorable face, and was what I always thought a dog of mine would be."

Winter adopted Jack, and as she began working and training him, she realized his potential as a giver of kindness. In just eight months, he went from being an abused and neglected dog to one who could pass the tests and certification requirements to work as a canine therapist.

Winter says that Jack is the ideal therapy dog. He's someone, she says, who survived adversity and went on to lead a rich and rewarding life. His sweet brown eyes, soft fur and his background as a rescue dog make him relatable—especially when kids hear he suffered the loss of half his tail during his previous life.

"He was given another chance for a purpose and this is it," says Winter. "Jack leaves no one out. He's everyone's friend."
Winter spends about 20 hours a month visiting DeWitt's K-4 elementary schools and kindergarten center. She's also looking to add visits to schools with fifth grade and older students as the program progresses.

Winter works with the entire school, and takes Jack to each and every classroom, multi-purpose areas and library. She introduces Jack through an assembly at the beginning of the school year, and says she makes sure that every child has a chance to meet and "put their hands" on Jack.

"Sometimes our visits aren't about words or talk," says Winter. "It's simply about being with Jack."

Winter coordinates with the DeWitt counselor as part of the school support team, and arranges for one-on-one work with kids who need individualized attention. She's there, she says, to facilitate the time kids can spend with Jack, and to help bring a sense of calm and caring to kids under stress or dealing with rough or emotionally-challenging situations—either at home or at school.

"I can't change things for these kids," says Winter, who sometimes does as many as eight one-on-one sessions in a single school day. "But I can let them know they matter with Jack. Sometimes that's all they need."

Schavey Road Elementary Principal Emily Palmatier concurs. She says that Jack's visits can make all the difference for kids, and can bring a sense of security to students who feel they can wrap their arms around him, tell him anything, and know he'll listen.

"I have seen students instantly calm at the sight of Jack," Palmatier says. "They settle down from their moments of distress. Some students work toward having 'Jack Time' as a reward and demonstrate positive behaviors for an entire week, knowing Jack will be there waiting for them soon."
Paws for concern
Many health experts say that animal-assisted therapy can reduce pain; alleviate depression, anxiety and stress; and even lower blood pressure. Research by the TDI, Paws for People and renowned health care systems like the Mayo Clinic points to the benefits of compassionate visits from dogs and other pets in medical and non-medical settings.

Dog handler Ruthi Bloomfield is proud to discuss how her family pet Jake became an important part of people's lives at Sparrow's Hospice House of Mid-Michigan. From 2004 to his recent retirement in 2014, the rescued lab-husky mix accompanied Bloomfield on once-a-week visits, providing unconditional love and acceptance to patients and their families during end-of-life care.

Jake, Bloomfield says, built bonds with so many families that many invited him to attend funerals of their loved ones. At times, Jake even continued to visit the spouses and families of hospice patients who had passed away.

"Patients just loved to pet Jake," says Ruthi. "He might sit close by their chair or get up on the bed. And for patients who were between this world and the next, we often just took their hand and let them feel his soft fur while saying 'He really likes when you pet him.' Jake would just go where a patient was in their journey. It warmed my heart."
Ann Kammerer is the development news editor for Capital Gains and writes occasional features.
Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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