Hey and her dog Jasper work as a team for Health Heelers.
Sam was 26 years
old, in graduate school on the West Coast, struggling with a
complicated mental illness known as schizoaffective disorder. He’d
been hospitalized three times for being suicidal.
"I was in
an abysmal place mentally," he recalls.
So in the fall
of 2011, hoping to find the right combination of medication and
therapy, he returned home to the Milwaukee area.
two years and Sam is back in grad school, grateful for those who
steered him through the rough waters. He keeps a photo on his desk of
one special helper: a black Labrador named Benny.
Benny and owner
Kari Schmidt became part of Sam’s therapy team through Wauwatosa-based
Pets Helping People Inc.
"I think it’s
an extraordinary program," says Sam, who wishes to remain
confidential. Nationwide, more than 100 organizations train dogs and
other animals and make them available to hospitals, rehab clinics,
elder-care and hospice facilities, libraries and schools. Disaster
stress relief dogs have responded at the sites of natural disasters
and tragedies such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Benny himself is
a survivor — adopted from the Wisconsin Humane Society after four
months in a Tennessee shelter that had become overcrowded due to
lives in the North Shore, is a nurse by training. In her dealings with
Sam, though, her role was to provide stability to Sam by bringing
Benny for weekly visits.
It may have
seemed like a tall order at first. Sam’s disorder caused him to be
withdrawn. He’d never owned a pet. The plan: Schmidt and Sam would
spend the first 30 minutes of their meetings just talking — with
Benny nearby — and the second half-hour on a walk with Benny.
"At the end
of the first meeting, I gave Benny his liver treats and he instantly
bonded with me, I felt," says Sam. "It definitely was a
little unexpected to have an immediate connection with not only a dog,
but somebody else’s dog."
anticipated their weekly get-togethers. Typical dog behaviors such as
napping and responding to noises gave Sam something to talk about. On
their walks, Sam took the leash, but Benny was always in charge,
tugging to smell flowers or meet another dog.
"Kari and I
would talk during the walks, but the walks were really between me and
Benny, I felt," says Sam.
Benny are among more than 250 teams handler/dog teams that have been
trained by Pets Helping People. The organization was founded in 1998
on the belief that "lives are changed when you pair a cold nose
and a wagging tail with a human being," says Terry Heun,
Heun and other pet therapy organizations, animals can assist in
lowering blood pressure and heart rate, improve classroom focus,
reduce the perception of pain and create a less-stressful environment.
In 2008, Heun
launched the pet therapy program at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital, where
handler/dog teams visit patients and attend support group discussions.
At one such gathering, Heun marveled at the clients’ enthusiasm for
the therapy dogs. "One person after another said, ‘They make me
laugh,’ ‘They accept me for who I am,’ or ‘They keep me
focused on the here and now,’" says Heun. Unconditional
acceptance is recognized in psychotherapy as a catalyst for change,
Mike Grassel of
Brookfield is a Pets Helping People volunteer with his poodle/bichon
Phoebe. For Grassel, it’s a way to give back to patients at Curative
Care Network. He received therapy services there while recovering from
a serious brain injury sustained in a car accident.
pulls me with her leash all the way to the front door and just dances
around," says Grassel. "She’s excited to see people, but
then she calms down and lets them hold her or pet her. She knows who
likes to get kisses and who just wants to hug her."
The need for
therapy dog teams is growing, according to Oak Creek dog trainer Linda
M. Bobot, who owns Guardian Angels Service and Therapy Dogs.
lifestyles today are very different than even 50 years ago," she
explains. "Many more people are isolated, living long-term in
facilities, needing to be noticed, wanting to touch and be
touched" and therapy animals can fill that role.
Laura Hey has
taken the concept in another direction since launching Health Heelers
in 2005. She trains handler/dog teams to work closely with physical,
occupational and speech therapists on specific rehabilitation goals
such as reaching, stretching, walking, fine-motor skills and
articulation. It’s called animal-assisted therapy.
the environment," says Hey, whose clients have included the
Milwaukee Center for Independence and Head Start. "Therapy
becomes fun. People will say, ‘We’re done already?’ and they’ve
been at it for 45 minutes already."
Working from a
100-year-old barn in Menomonee Falls, Health Heelers has trained more
than 70 handler/dog teams. It also trains bunnies, and has five of its
cats among the just 200 felines nationwide that are registered as
As for Sam, he
lives in an apartment that doesn’t permit pets, and says, "Any
chance I get to interact with a dog or cat, I go for it." He
recommended Pets Helping People to a friend who was experiencing
Sam does say
that he was able to find the right medication for himself around the
same time he met Benny, but adds he’s not sure where he’d be now
if Benny hadn’t been part of his treatment.
definitely be in a worse place, if I was around at all," he says.
"I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it was to have that
contact, that love with Benny and to have that regularity every
your dog has what it takes to become a therapy animal?
need to take him to a screening for basic skills and
temperament. Obedience counts, and evaluators watch how the
owner corrects any bad behaviors. Handlers generally must be 18
or older, and dogs have to be at least 1 year old.
half of dogs make the cut. Those who do take an intensive
four-week course, with homework.
takes a very unique animal, and more than just a friendly
animal," says Laura Hey of Health Heelers. "They have
to be able to tolerate unfamiliar places, lots and lots of
strangers, scents and sounds and stimulation. There are a lot of
demands on these animals."
or mix is OK, but "some dogs just aren’t wired for
this," cautions Terry Heun of Pets Helping People.
"They would do much better at flyball or agility."
who do earn certification, the rewards can go beyond a biscuit
and a pat on the head. The American Kennel Club awards its
Therapy Dog title to dogs who have performed 50 or more
community visits. Good boy!