Therapy: Dogs Bring Out the Best in All Ages
Mary Lou Boersig becomes overwhelmed with emotion when she happens upon one roaming the halls of St. Joseph of the Pines Health Center.
"When I look into their eyes, I see the eyes of God," says this St. Joseph volunteer.
She needs to touch them, stroke them and whisper kind words next to their ears. It's therapy for her. Then, she can go on her way to visit the sick, the ailing and the lonely in her gentle, peaceful manner.
Dogs -- those as petite as a miniature poodle and as broad as an Australian cattle dog -- spend time at the skilled nursing facility and the assisted living community on Camp Easter Road in Southern Pines daily. They have received certification through Therapy Dog International (TDI). Their handlers have gone through orientation classes under St. Joseph's volunteer services department, and the residents, patients, staff, and yes, other volunteers, reap the benefits of the canine companionship.
So, when Boersig, the proud owner of a Labrador Retriever living in Pinehurst, meets a therapy dog during her rounds, a glow surrounds her as she cups the dog's face in her hands and peers into its eyes.
"They're so forgiving, so loving, so giving, so patient and so kind. They're all of the things that God and Jesus are," she says.
With this picture in mind, it is no wonder Linda Hubbard, Moore County Schools volunteer coordinator, has a hit on her hands with the newly formed Canine Assisted Reading Education (C.A.R.E.) project. Hubbard's Christmas gift to young school children here is the recent graduation of 13 therapy dogs that were inducted into the program.
Just picture elementary school children sitting alongside a well-groomed dog. One small hand strokes its back while the other clutches a book. The young student reads a passage, stumbles on a word and hears the quick but subtle verbal prompt of a volunteer who comes to the rescue. With the new volunteer graduates beginning their school assignments in January, participation will grow to 21. Volunteers with therapy dogs that frequent St. Joseph of the Pines were encouraged to participate in the C.A.R.E. in Moore County Schools.
Carol Wilkinson, a longtime St. Joseph volunteer, seemed an unlikely candidate for a C.A.R.E. volunteer. Her dog Blue, on the other hand, a young English Labrador with impeccable manners and "more degrees than a Duke professor," boasts Wilkinson, was a perfect fit. After only a few visits to her assigned classes, Wilkinson's outlook about her role there has done a 60 degree turn. She confessed to Hubbard prior to committing Blue to the job, "Blue will be wonderful with them but I don't like kids."
However, Wilkinson, after just a couple of weeks on her new volunteer job, asked Hubbard to increase her days at the school.
"The more children we can see the better," she says. "Blue greets each child as they come with their books. Then, he lies down and they (children) start reading to him."
She was very excited about the poster one class put together with the children's own free-hand pictures of Blue. She wanted to know if school was in session the day after Thanksgiving.
"I mean, I'll show up," she says, and was disappointed to learn there was no school Nov. 24.
Kathy and Jim Lupini find visits with Friday to Aberdeen Primary School's second grade children equally rewarding. They tell the children, "Friday can't read because she's a dog, but Friday loves to listen to you read."
Friday is a Heinz 57 variety with a heart of gold and a tail that just won't quit. Rescued by the Lupinis who are American Red Cross volunteers, from a dog pound in Alabama after a hurricane had rendered her helpless and ragged, Friday began her career as a therapy dog at St. Joseph of the Pines. She is as comforting a presence with the children in the school as she is with nursing home residents and rehabilitation patients.
Canine Assisted Reading Education is not a new concept and programs incorporating registered therapy dogs to motivate children are quickly gaining ground around the country. Hubbard, though, in developing C.A.R.E. in Moore County Schools, a first of its kind in North Carolina, put a unique spin on it in the form of Rebecca Vassallo, M.D., and her Luther, who spearheaded the Luther and Friends C.A.R.E.
C.A.R.E. targets elementary students reading below grade level. The therapy dog team is assigned to mentor the elementary student with one-on-one instruction and Principles of Guided Reading. The dogs are certified through Therapy Dog International, Inc. (TDI) following a lengthy test which incorporates evaluations for obedience and temperament. They must also pass the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizenship test (CGC).
TDI is a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions where therapy dogs are needed. Founded in 1976 in New Jersey by Elaine Smith, the organization registers all breeds of dogs. Some have pedigrees, while others have been adopted from local shelters or are rescue dogs. More than 15,000 dogs and about 13,000 handlers are registered with TDI.
Hubbard jumped on the concept to foster reading and good pet ownership education with therapy dogs and C.A.R.E. right here in Moore County. The granddaddy of canines leading the effort is a name synonymous with exemplary volunteerism. Luther Diablo Vassallo, a chocolate lab mix rescued by Rebecca Vassallo, has mastered the ins-and-outs of skilled nursing and assisted living facilities. He comes dressed for the weather, the occasion and his mood. At St. Joseph of the Pines he gets as much attention handed to him as he paws out.
After taking on the task of making reading enjoyable to the younger element of the population, the Vassallo team has been successful in helping to recruit many tail-wagging, TDI certified dogs and their owners who diligently perform their school volunteer assignments.
"We're going somewhere all the time," Vassallo says. "If we're not in the schools or health care communities, we're recruiting and being goodwill ambassadors for responsible pet ownership."
For this retired physician and her faithful, hard-working companion, helping to open minds, hearts and opportunities for the frail, for school children and for other pet owners is a gratifying mission. For assisted pet therapy volunteers, a TDI dog can unlock physical doors and emotional barriers in the schools and other places that respect and welcome their services.
"I think it's great that pet ownership can be coupled with volunteerism," says St. Joseph of the Pines clinical social worker Beth Price. "There is no doubt that when the therapy dogs arrive for their scheduled visits on the long-term nursing and rehabilitation halls, most everyone gets a huge thrill and pick-me-up."
Price recalls some of the expressions she sees on residents' faces when a therapy dog enters.
"Oh, their faces light up like a beacon," she says. "The dogs are especially comforting for the residents, and patients who have pets waiting for them at home. They tell me the visits really make a difference to them."
Hubbard says her experience after seeing the C.A.R.E. program in the schools up and running has been nothing but positive.
"Children who are shy or have low self-esteem seem to overcome these traits when they can put their arms around a dog and read," says Hubbard. "I was amazed to see children very shy blossom once they thought they were only reading to a dog."
To learn more about Luther's Visitors Canine Bureau and Luther and Friends C.A.R.E., call Hubbard at 947-2342, or log on to the Moore County Schools Web site at www.mcs.k12.nc.us. To inquire about assisted pet therapy at St. Joseph of the Pines, call 246-1139.
Jeralie Andrews is the director of volunteer services at St. Joseph of the Pines.
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