Volunteer shares her pet terrier's companionship

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Add one more comfort and service to the wide array of things that people in Juneau are volunteering to offer to clients of Hospice and Home Care. Volunteer Vicky McLaughlin, a kindergarten teacher at Riverbend Elementary School, is offering to share her 8-year-old Welsh terrier "Tess" with clients who would enjoy affectionate contact with a canine friend.

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Some people have fond memories of pets they no longer have, McLaughlin said, while others just seem to enjoy having contact with an affectionate and well-trained animal. "Tess doesn't perform tricks," she said, "but anytime someone wants a visit I could bring her by. That doesn't have to be the exclusive activity. I'd be glad to read to people or play board games while they pat the dog."

To prepare for bringing Tess into a hospice or home care environment, both McLaughlin and Tess underwent a program of training and exercises to earn certification from Therapy Dogs International (TDI), an organization founded in 1976 so that dogs serving patients in various settings could be certified, insured, and registered. The goal of TDI is "to provide comfort, joy, and companionship to those in need."

To earn certification Tess had to successfully complete a series of 15 to 17 exercises to the satisfaction of an American Kennel Club-certified judge, who was brought to Juneau by the Capital Kennel Club in March 2006. The exercises included staying calm while walking through a crowd, staying put as her owner walked away, reacting without stress to sudden loud noises, and leaving food that had been dropped on the ground. She also learned to greet people in a wheelchair from the side rather than the front so they would not lean forward to pet her and be in danger of falling out.

Besides handling Tess in these varied situations, McLaughlin received training in safety considerations; communicating effectively with clients and family members or staff; respecting client confidentiality; and monitoring her dog for any signs of stress or discomfort. Each year she must complete a number of forms and agreements for Therapy Dogs International, and Tess must be examined and certified healthy by a veterinarian.

All therapy dog activities are offered on a volunteer basis at no charge, McLaughlin said, "but I do need to plan visits in advance so Tess can have a bath beforehand."

"The companionship that animals offer is a wonderful thing," McLaughlin said. "They don't pass any judgments. They just offer unconditional love. It's very peaceful and calming to be able to stroke a dog or a cat." Indeed, in its training manual, Therapy Dogs International cites studies that have shown that positive interaction with dogs can lower blood pressure; promote relaxation; relieve agitation, anxiety, and stress; and in some cases reduce the need for drug therapy.

McLaughlin said seven other dogs were certified as both American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizens, and TDI Therapy Dogs at the same time Tess was. Three of the dogs and their owners have since moved out of town, she said, but others have visited with patients at the Pioneers Home and Wildflower Court.

Why is McLaughlin willing to put so much effort into a volunteer activity? "It's a real partnership," she said. "Structured activities like these are a fun way to form a bond with your dog. Also, about seven years ago, Hospice did an outstanding job of helping my sister in Florida," she said. "They're a really good organization, so I wanted to extend what I was doing to them in Juneau."

To learn more, or to request a visit from "Tess" and her owner, contact Jean Jasmine, Hospice and Home Care bereavement counselor, at 463-6134 or jean.jasmine@ccsjuneau.org. You can learn more about Juneau's Therapy Dogs on the Capital Kennel Club of Juneau web site www.ckcoj.org.

• Marge Hermans is a Hospice and Home Care of Juneau volunteer. Hospice and Home Care of Juneau is a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.

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