Monday, November 09, 2009
Photos by KYLE GREEN The Roanoke Times
Michael Taylor, a sixth grader at Lucy Addison Middle School, reads a book alongside Goldie, a 9-year-old therapy dog. TheraPets takes friendly, well-trained dogs to schools, hospitals and extended care facilities as therapy for patients and to help kids practice reading.
Bryanna Cooper, a sixth-grader at Lucy Addison Middle School, reads with TheraPets volunteers Pam Lucas and "Jude," a 2-year-old Lab. To become a pet therapy dog takes training and the right temperament.
KYLE GREEN The Roanoke Times
Michael Taylor and Goldie have a bonding moment during an after-school program at Lucy Addison Middle School. "It makes such a difference to people to be able to reach out to a dog," says TheraPets volunteer Pam Lucas. "It makes them smile. It's a really neat feeling."
Nona Nelson, The Happy Wag
Read Nona's blog, The Happy Wag:
Jude gently maneuvered his way through the chairs, the walkers and the wheelchairs.
Wearing his official green therapy pet vest on a chilly afternoon at the Adult Care Center in Salem, the yellow Labrador retriever patiently offered himself to many hands, some softly rubbing his head and floppy ears, some vigorously patting his back.
Jude never flinched; his tail never stopped wagging. He knows his job: Be quiet. Be gentle. Be available.
One elderly man didn't notice Jude until the dog was sitting quietly at his feet.
He asked permission from the woman at the end of the leash.
"Yes sir, he's my dog," Pam Lucas answered. "And yes, he would love it if you would pet him."
Extending a paw
Few pleasures rival the simple joy of stroking the fur of a friendly dog.
Lucas and the two dozen other volunteer human-canine teams that make up TheraPets of the Roanoke Valley visit hospitals, extended-care facilities, schools and libraries to provide companionship to patients and help students learn.
TheraPets is part of the Delta Society, an international organization that trains teams of pets and their owners for animal-assisted therapy.
According the Delta Society, numerous studies that show interacting with animals can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and increase endorphins, which alleviates feelings of isolation and depression.
Lucas, 40, and her dogs Jude, 3, and Ghost, a 6-year-old, three-legged greyhound, make two or three visits a week to schools and hospitals.
"It makes such a difference to people to be able to reach out to a dog," Lucas explained. "It makes them smile. It's a really neat feeling."
At Lucy Addison Middle School, the dogs and their human partners help students in an after-school program designed to improve confidence in their reading skills.
Jude snuggled up to sixth-grader NiDajha Barnett as she read a book out loud to Lucas.
Dogs lend a friendly, nonjudgmental ear that helps students practice reading. They also help keep kids calm in what can be a stressful situation.
"I like caressing them," NiDajha said about her canine helpers. "It helps me with reading publicly."
And the dogs don't mind the attention, either.
Across the room, Goldie, a 9-year-old Lab, rolled over on his back, nuzzling Michael Taylor while the student simultaneously rubbed the dog's belly and read aloud to volunteer Zora Kavanaugh.
When Michael paused to turn the page, Goldie reached out an encouraging paw to him: keep reading and keep rubbing.
A family of volunteers
Love of animals and a desire to help others runs in Lucas' family.
Her daughter Kathryn, now a seventh-grader at Cave Spring Middle School, passed her Delta Society tests two years ago when she was 10 and is registered to work with both Ghost and Jude.
Lucas, a former teacher and now a stay-at-home mom, also takes her son Drew, 10, and daughter Anna Rose, 9, with her to hospitals when they are not in school.
"I think it helps them gain empathy and respect for older people and people with disabilities," she said.
Now the chapter president of TheraPets, Lucas said she got interested in animal-assisted therapy after her mother, Elizabeth Thomson, 68, and her dog Peaches became registered with the group.
"She would talk with me about it," Lucas said. "And I saw what a difference Peaches made in her recovery."
Thomson is a breast cancer survivor. She adopted Peaches, a yellow Lab, as a puppy more than eight years ago, after undergoing surgery and completing radiation treatments.
Having a puppy to care for, and the goal of training the playful, rambunctious pooch to be a therapy pet, gave Thomson a reason to keep going, even on days when she didn't feel well.
"I was focused on her instead of me," Thomson said.
Lucas adopted Ghost in 2004 with the plan of turning the retired racer into a therapy dog. It was not an easy task with a then-2-year-old dog that did not know basic commands such as sit and stay.
Persistence, training and a lot of tuna treats paid off, and a year later, Ghost passed his tests to become a registered therapy dog.
Eighteen months ago, the hound lost his left front leg to cancer. Having only three legs has made Ghost even more special to some patients.
"We visit a lot of amputees at the VA hospital," Lucas said. "They love to see Ghost and say, "Hey, buddy, look at you. We're in the same boat."
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