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September 01, 2005

Just the Right Therapy

By: Jamie Klinger-Krebs

Linda Fodor is almost always greeted with a smile when she walks through the doors of a nursing home with her Golden retrievers, Bella and Bailey. Before she even reaches the hallway, she knows what an impression the dogs have made and what a spark of happiness they bring to those who sometimes find little to smile about.

“There’s rarely a visit that goes by that people don’t get excited to see the dogs,” explains Fodor, a veteran dog trainer and owner of Best Paw Forward Dog Training in Hartland. Fodor knows the powerful effect dogs have on people since she and her certified therapy dogs regularly visit area nursing homes and hospitals. As a certified evaluator for the American Kennel Club, Therapy Dog International and Delta Society, Fodor knows the importance of proper training and the infinite value of therapy dogs to those they visit.

“For those in a nursing home the dogs can often act as a motivator or a focal point since the lives of the residents are usually very routine,” she explains. “It gives them something different, something to look forward too.”

The dogs also give elderly residents something to talk about, which is important for some those who often don’t speak much at all.

“Sometimes they just start talking and asking questions about the dog and it sparks a memory of pets they once had and miss terribly; it just gets them going,” says Fodor.

Tina Szada, activities director at Care-Age in Brookfield, one of the facilities Fodor routinely visits, concurs. “When the dogs are here it really perks people up and makes their day,” she says. Along with regular visits from Fodor’s dogs, staff members of Care-Age also routinely bring in their own dogs to visit with residents.

“Having pets around really helps them (the residents) remember things from their lives and helps them spark memories,” explains Szada. Recently the facility also designed a bulletin board dedicated to pets of staff members as well as past pets of residents. “It really gets them talking about their lives and that’s so important, because it makes them feel good.”

In one particular meaningful visit with one of her training classes, Fodor recalls a simple gesture from an elderly woman that drove home the powerful effect dogs can have on elderly individuals. The woman had been at the facility for about two weeks, Fodor explains, and had not smiled or spoken since her arrival at the facility, but that soon changed.

“When we came through the door she was sitting in the hallway in a wheelchair and we had this little Yorkie in the class who went right up to her and the woman just smiled and put her hand on the dog. It was so simple, but that moment was really amazing for everyone.”

Receiving visits from dogs not only helps morale and social stimulation, but it can also provide physical therapy, especially for individuals who may have suffered a stroke, says Fodor. Oftentimes during visits with such individuals, she asks residents to brush the dog or help walk the dog, if they are able.

“A lot of times we might be told ahead of time if someone has weakness in a certain area and aren’t motivated to move on their left side, or whichever side may have been affected by the stroke. In this case, they may tell me ‘right side or left side’ before we go in, so when we do I make sure to direct the dog to go to that side. It never fails when they dog goes to that side, they immediately reach down to pet them.”

With all the happiness that therapy dogs can bring to elderly or handicapped individuals, Fodor also stresses that it takes the right dog and the proper training to take on the job. It’s important for both dogs and handlers to be prepared for certain situations. Therapy dogs need to have the proper temperament and not be afraid to be crowded by people who often want to immediately reach out to them.

“People really need to know 100 percent that their dog can handle these kinds of situations,” she adds.

Some of the most important characteristics that go into making a good therapy dog revolve around overall good breeding and nurturing from the handler. Temperament is also extremely important, but specific breed matters less than the overall personality of the dog.

“Some dogs just have what it takes and some don’t,” says Fodor, who has also trained a pit bull and rottweilers to become therapy dogs.

To start from square one in order to become a therapy dog, Fodor suggests starting a young dog in basic obedience training and going from there. In all it may take one year and cost about $500 for a dog to receive all the proper training. To become a certified therapy dog, the dog and handler must be tested and evaluated. Though one may never receive monetary rewards for bringing a smile to the face of someone who desperately needs it, Fodor says she wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“When people ask me why I don’t get paid for visits with the dogs I always say, ‘I do get paid; I make millions in knowing I just made someone feel good.’”


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