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Working like a dog
When a four-legged friend is on the job

03/11/10



Dogs are furry, loveable creatures that adore and obey, for the most part at least, and make wonderful pets.

But they also have another calling as work and therapy animals. They can sniff out trouble, and provide comfort and healing to the sick when properly trained. Perhaps you have seen one of these dogs at an area hospital performing tricks and sitting with patients, or maybe you have seen one riding alongside area law enforcement officers.

Dogs in the library
Duré Alamed, a volunteer with Pet Partners, an affiliate of the Delta Society (www.deltasociety.org), which oversees national therapy dog programs, energizes kids to read at Wiggin Memorial Library in Stratham, with her dogs Hannah and Maize.

“The whole point is to promote interest in reading for kids. A lot of children are uncomfortable reading to their peers but are not nervous reading to a non-judgmental audience. My job is not to be a teacher, but allow kids to explain a story to myself and the dogs. I might say, I don’t think Maize understands that word, can you tell me about that?” Alamed said.

The Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.) program is a national organization started in 1999 by the non-profit Intermountain Therapy Animals (www.therapyanimals.org). For a complete list of R.E.A.D. programs in the surrounding area, see www.petpartners.org.

Keeping company
Hannah and Maize also visit Exeter Hospital and Riverwoods Assisted Living and Memory units in Exeter.

“I’m always amazed when patients light up upon seeing the dogs,” Alamed said.  

“Priceless,” said activities manager Dee McDonald, at Riverwoods in Exeter, when describing their visiting pets program.

“The sensory stimulation and happiness the pets bring is huge,” McDonald said. In addition to dogs, there is also a cat that visits the facility, and “it just plops right down on people’s laps, they just love it,” she said.

Sniffing out the bad guys
When it comes to safety, dogs are great protection. Portsmouth Police Chief David Ferland, founder of the Working Dog Foundation (www.workingdog.org), a non-profit organization that supports and trains K-9 units in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, said they use dogs to uncover drugs, find missing persons, uncover bodies hidden underground and in the water, and locate items such as explosives. Their sense of smell is estimated to be 500 to 1,000 times greater than humans’.

Ferland said they primarily use German shepherds because they are readily identifiable as a police dog and bring a certain deterrent value.

“Shepherds are bred as working dogs and can handle the New England weather well as they have a heavy coat in the winter and shed it in the summer,” Ferland said.

How do working dogs learn to track? “Dogs innately track for food,” Ferland said. During training they hone their skills by linking food to a tossed ball during play and quickly associate any scent with a human smell. They are taught the same way to track narcotics and explosives. They start with a ball, and scent it with drugs to establish the association.

Ferland said he has had many happy endings to searches including locating an autistic child when it was just 10 degrees outside: “A lot of times autistic kids will not respond when their name is called, and this missing child had removed their clothes in confusion and was in danger.” Upon discovery, Ferland received a huge hug and somehow his dog knew he was not being attacked. “It was a great feeling,” Ferland said.

Dog as therapy assistants
ElderPet (www.elderpet.org) in Durham and Monadnock offers pet partner training and education to pet owners for assisted therapy programs. The organization was started by retired University of New Hampshire professor Jerilee Zezula and is an affiliate of the Delta Society. The purpose of the program is to “break down the barriers because a lot of people don’t know what a service dog is and what the benefits of animal-assisted therapy are,” said Lisa Karakostas, instructor, evaluator and board member with ElderPet. She said they look for a strong bond between both the animal and handler, and it’s not just for dogs — any domesticated animal can be used for therapy, Karakostas said.

“Animals are a diversion and enable patients to just be present and mindful without the nuisance of being judged; this is especially important in situations such as hospice care where a lot of sadness is present. All of us when we meet someone experience a thought or judgment — dogs don’t do that,” Karakostas said.

“Every dog has its calling,” said Linda Hume, an animal facilitated therapist of Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem and Nashua. A former clinical nurse, Hume started their Animal Facilitated Therapy (AFT) in 1992. The program animals are trained to an advanced degree on more than 350 objects to assist with patient rehabilitation. She has three dogs — two labs and a German shepherd puppy — that will pick up anything from a dime to a hammer. The objects are used in pediatric speech therapy to help with articulation, where the patient will hide an object and pronounce the object’s name so it can be found by the animal.

Hume’s dogs also assist in physical and occupational therapy of all ages, including brain injury patients.

“If a person has a problem with object identification, they learn to give the correct command to the dog for items such as a cup,” Hume said. To learn more about Hume’s program, visit www.northeastrehab.com/features/animal-facilitated-therapy.htm.

The following area hospitals have Pet Therapy Programs: Exeter, Eliott, Wentworth Douglas, Portsmouth, CMC–Manchester, Southern New Hampshire Regional in Nashua and almost every nursing home. For a complete list of assisted animal therapy programs in New Hampshire and nationwide, visit www.landofpuregold.com.






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