Many of Vermont’s children suffer the impacts of severe illness, abuse, neglect, and physical and mental disabilities that bring difficult challenges to them each day. Relieving them of their pain and suffering is also a challenge, but there is one method currently proving its value and gaining attention from educational and medical facilities: Animal Assisted Therapy. Founded in 1992 by Steve Reiman, Therapy Dogs of Vermont (TDV) is a non-profit organization that prepares dogs and their handlers to bring smiles and comfort to as many of these children as possible. Their work in schools, hospitals, and at child-centered events extends beyond Vermont into “New Hampshire, New York, and even parts of Canada.” (Therapy Dogs of Vermont, n.d.)
Jackie Spence and her dog Fenway only recently embarked upon their rewarding journey of therapy team work, but already they’ve seen the difference they can make by just showing up. Spence described Fenway’s impact at a Camp Ta-Kum-Ta event: “I felt that they had a moment of not feeling ill when they were playing with him.” (J. Spence, personal communication, December 4, 2015) An appropriate example of Florence Nightingale’s belief “that a small pet could make an excellent companion for the sick particularly for the chronically ill.” (Jalongo et al., 2004, p. 10)
Therapy work is not for every dog; the process to certification is rigorous. Animals must be very well mannered and respond immediately to all commands. TDV team handler and school principle Denise Goodnow reported that her dog Cooper was the only dog in his class to become certified to work with children. In contrast, he failed to pass certification for nursing home work; his resistance at approaching a resident in a wheelchair abruptly ended his testing. (To learn more about the path to certification with Therapy Dogs of Vermont or to discover if you or someone you know might benefit from its services, please visit therapydogs.org.)
(Boy With Cooper the Therapy Dog, 2015)
Goodnow discussed the impact that Cooper has made on many of the children at her school. When I asked her how Cooper assisted students in their learning and emotional development, she replied
I think the biggest impact he has is with a child’s emotional development. Many children have “Cooper time” as part of their special education or behavior plan. If they meet their goals they get to spend time with him. He is a stress fur ball for students who are anxious or have other mental health challenges that require relief during the day.” (D. Goodnow, personal communication, December 4, 2015)
Ironically, Goodnow admitted that “I am not a dog person.” She went on to explain that her partner is the dog lover. It was by her influence that Goodnow was introduced to the great benefits that children receive from animal companionship. Once Denise was able to see the value in bringing a therapy dog to work with her she never looked back. She went on to say that when she changes jobs it’s a package deal — the dog comes, too.
I observed firsthand the effect that Cooper had on one of the students at his school. Familiar with this particular boy (having spent time with him two years ago while volunteering in his Kindergarten classroom), I recalled that he spent much of his classroom attendance trying to gain the attention of his classmates, often with hands-on behavior, evidence that he sought companionship. Upon entering the room that Cooper, Denise, and I occupied, his face lit up at the realization that he had earned “Cooper time.” Though speaking to me was difficult for him, he was able to relay his warm feelings for the dog without trouble. I watched as a relaxed smile appeared on his face each time Cooper responded to him. The dog lapped up the boy’s attention with enthusiasm, making his desire for a belly rub apparent by flopping onto his back and exposing his pink tummy. Hugs were accepted graciously, providing the boy with the close companionship that I remembered him seeking two years before. And hand signals were immediately responded too. Denise shared with me Cooper’s ability to patiently listen and provide the child with a relaxed and comforting environment to read in, a task that comes very reluctantly to the boy. I found this practice reflective of Jalongo, Astorino and Bomboy’s (2004) findings:
The presence of a calm, attentive dog apparently moderates the stress responses more than the presence of an adult and even more than the presence of a supportive friend when children were reading aloud or having a routine medical exam. (p. 9)
Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) is a worldwide program developed by Intermountain Therapy Animals in 1999 that “utilizes therapy animals to help kids improve their reading and communication skills and also teaches them to love books and reading.” (Intermountain Therapy Animals, n.d.) Cooper and many of his canine colleagues, though not members of the R.E.A.D program, offer the same services to their charges. The children that they work with become enthusiastic for learning when relieved of the normal pressures they live with each day. The dogs create these scenarios by providing an environment of unconditional affection, free of criticism and stress. This video clip offers a heart-warming example of a Vermont Therapy Dog at work :
(Mountain Lake PBS, 2011)
Berry, Borgi, Francia, Alleva, and Cirulli (2013) reported that “animals seem to possess a unique capacity to serve as an emotional bridge in specific therapeutic contexts”(2013, p. 77). They also noted that therapy dogs’ non-threatening demeanors are “known to exert a calming and de-arousing influence” (p.77), which may be at the core of their success in helping children to engage with others. As evidence continues to materialize proving the dramatic benefits therapy dogs offer children — especially those on the autism spectrum or with other health issues, learning disabilities, or trauma — Vermont schools and medical facilities would do well to participate in therapy dog programs.
Berry, A., Borgi, M., Francia, N., Alleva, E., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Use of Assistance and Therapy Dogs for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Critical Review of the Current Evidence. The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, 19(2), 73–80.
Goodnow, Denise. (Photographer). (2015). Boy With Cooper the Therapy Dog. Retrieved from author.
Intermountain Therapy Animals. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from http://www.therapyanimals.org/Contact_Us.html
Jalongo, R., Astorino, T., Bomboy, N. (2004). Canine visitors: the influence of therapy dogs on young children’s well-being in classrooms and hospitals. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32(1), 9-16.
Mountain Lake PBS (2011, August 22). Spotlight – Therapy Dog for Reading [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rve1DukX3Mo
Therapy Dogs of Vermont. (n.d.). History. Retrieved from http://www.therapydogs.org/who-we-are/history
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APA cite in text as: (Lafayette, 2016)
APA cite in full References as: Lafayette, R. (2016). Therapy dogs for Vermont kids. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from http://wp.me/P4elXk-9I
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Richelle Lafayette: Over eleven years ago I embarked upon an adventure in the opening of a doggy day camp. Since then I have married and welcomed two children, said goodbye to two loves of my life (my dogs Buster and Tasha), and opened my heart to a new love, my Golden Retriever, Max. Three years ago, I returned to my classes at Community College of Vermont after a 13-year hiatus. It has taken time and the education of life to guide me into recognizing an opportunity to combine my greatest interests: children and dogs. After obtaining my Associates Degree this spring, I plan to continue my education with a future in school counseling as my goal. Of course a partner with four legs and a tail will complete my quest. Family and friends, reading, animals, volunteering at my children’s school, the great outdoors, and education all contribute to my somewhat balanced life.