GREENE COUNTY – The healing power of dogs is magical. Just ask therapy dog handlers Karen Hawk and Rhonda Jones.
“A therapy dog is one who is there to make people feel better,” Hawk said. “I like the term: comfort dogs. Just by petting a dog, your blood pressure lowers. There’s a joy people get from petting a dog, stroking a dog and loving a dog that you just can’t get by any other means … Animals just bring out the joy in a lot of people.”
Hawk is responsible for golden retrievers Reba, who is 9 years old, and April, who is less than a year old. She visits Soin Medical Center each Friday, where Reba’s work begins in the lobby when spotted by a hospital-stayer, a worker or a visitor. Squeals and smiles arise, followed by: “Can I pet your dog?” or “Is she a therapy dog?”
“A therapy dog is born, not made,” Hawk said. “I can teach almost any dog obedience, but I cannot teach them to love people. That has to be inborn.”
Hawk then accompanies Reba upstairs to varying hospital departments. She predicts that if it weren’t for the elevator buttons, Reba could walk the route herself. The retriever has been at it since she was four months old when Hawk’s husband found himself in the hospital.
Instinctively, Reba climbed on the bed. Next door, a stroke victim asked to hold Reba, to which the dog offered her paws on the bed and her head in the victim’s lap. Just after giving that comfort, Hawk found Reba rolling around outside on the hallway floor giving a smile to the respiratory therapist.
“I swear, at four months she knew what everybody needed and was going to supply,” Hawk said. “… [A good therapy dog must] love people. Second of all, they have to be obedient and under control. They have to be able to tolerate anybody and anything.”
In Reba’s case, she gets it honestly as her father was a therapy dog. But becoming a therapy dog isn’t as simple as a decision. These dogs must undergo training and receive certification.
Jones, another therapy dog handler at Soin, decided to offer comfort with canines after her mother suffered from cancer and she saw therapy dogs in action. She had just lost one dog, but was planning to get another. Jones is retired, but believes in giving back to the community. Her Coton de Tulear dog, Spirit, started in a retirement home and eventually graduated to hospital-therapy status. Her second Coton de Tulear, Hairy, is younger but still makes his rounds offering smiles.
“My dogs are performing dogs,” Jones said. “When you’re sick and don’t feel well, or you’ve got bad news after all the tests you went through, or you’re worried about tests they took, [my dogs] come in, walk on their back legs, twirl, sit pretty, they perform. Most therapy dogs don’t perform.”
She pointed out that they are two distinct dogs with two separate personalities. Hairy, she said, is her cute dog; Spirit is her performing, athletic dog. Both are hypoallergenic. They make their rounds at Soin twice per month on Tuesday evenings and Thursday mornings.
Jones additionally acquaints them with the community as Hairy and Spirit have attended parades and tree lightings at Greene Memorial Hospital and Soin. Neither of the Cotons are strangers to costumes and dog clothing. Spirit had been providing therapy at nursing facilities for about a year when Jones started to consider taking him to hospitals. Spirit sported a tie to his interview.
“It helps people refocus, it helps people get away from their problems for a few seconds and I feel like that’s giving back to the community in every way,” Jones said. “… It has been a very rewarding experience for me having the dogs and they’ve been accepted throughout the hospital.”
Whitney Vickers can be reached by calling her directly at 937-502-4532. For more content online, visit our website or like our Facebook page.