Pets with purpose

Local therapy dogs help people connect, heal

Written by Amy Bird | Photography by Visual Fusion Photographics, Aaron Pattron, Ryan Hendrix, Craig Lindeman

Hunny and Norman have a lot in common. They love people, swimming and a good snooze on the couch. On any given day, you may find them helping others or, perhaps, chewing on a bone.

As therapy dogs, they serve Wichitans with snuggles, kisses and a slight paw to let kids and adults know they hear them. As pets, they do the same. It’s what they do, and they are good at it.

Hunny

Hunny, a mellow, doe-eyed golden retriever, works at Central Christian Counseling Center with her owner, Melissa Hopper, a practicing psychologist.

“I believe animals are such great support to us,” she contends. “People love to talk about animals and share stories about them – it’s a way for people to connect.”

Hopper, who adopted Hunny from a breeder as a puppy specifically to be a therapy dog, says Hunny has proved an amazing morale booster around her office, tending to the staff as well as clients.

“She visits the waiting room and she sits in on appointments with me. Sometimes she doesn’t do anything — she just lays down. But if someone is anxious, she’ll get up and check on them. Dogs are intuitive to the emotion in the room. She’ll sit at their feet and maybe put a paw on their leg,” Hopper explains.

The role of a therapy dog is different than those of service dogs who are trained and tested for specific functions and are not viewed as pets or comfort animals. However, therapy dogs do have to go through an examination process. To be registered, therapy dogs must pass a test through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a volunteer organization that tests and oversees the registra- tion of dogs and their handlers.

The TDI exam covers obedience, temperament and behavior, and the dogs’ reaction to medical equip- ment and other out-of-the-ordinary situations.

“The dogs can’t be anxious when you aren’t with them and can’t show aggression to anybody, especially children and other dogs. They can't be overly reactive to something that might happen,” Hopper says.

She says Hunny doesn’t have an aggressive bone in her, which made her a perfect candidate. In the four years since Hunny started working as a therapy dog, Hopper says Hunny even seems to recognize the difference between being on and off duty, choosing herself when she goes to work with Hopper.

“She comes to work with me a couple times a week,” Hopper says. “When she goes to my car in the morning, I know she wants to go to work with me — if she doesn’t, she stays home.”

Norman

Laura Reed says Norman, like Hunny, seems to have an intuitive sense about being on the job.

“He wears a special collar and bandana when he works. When I put that on him he knows he is going to one of the places,” Reed relates, explaining that while he is always friendly, he also is instinctively gentle, which is what encouraged her to seek his therapy certification.

Reed, a licensed social worker, says she had owned a therapy dog earlier in her career, but didn’t adopt Norman from the Kansas Humane Society with that in mind.

After moving to Wichita four years ago, Reed started volunteering at the Humane Society and fell in love with Norman, a two-year-old black Labrador who was relinquished when his prior owners could no longer care for him.

“I knew I didn’t want a puppy,” she says of wanting a dog that was already house trained. “(Norman) had an eye infection, an ear infection and he was obese, but I could see he was a really sweet dog.

“I had Norman for six months and he had such a good temperament,” Reed recalls. “After seeing how calm and good natured he was, I just knew he’d be perfect.”

In 2012, Reed took him to obedience classes and a special therapy class at Chisholm Creek Pet Resort that goes through the TDI exam. Currently, Norman meets with a hospice patient and volunteers weekly at Young Life Capernaum Club, a Christian outreach to kids with special needs.

“Petting a dog has a lot of benefit to people. It makes them feel good,” she says. “With Capernaum where some kids aren’t very verbal, they pet him and love him, and he loves them — he doesn’t care how well they communicate. There is no judgment.”

What pets do best

In Reed’s job as a social worker, she says she sees the benefit and healing to those who interact with therapy dogs. As a pet owner, she is the recipient.

“There is something wonderful about the connection, loyalty and unconditional love a pet offers,” she says, adding that they also bring a little levity to life. “They are fun, hilarious really.”

Hopper concurs. In addition to Hunny, the Hoppers have another dog, a cat and two rats – all of which, she says, have brought joy to their family and helped her children learn compassion.

“They add a lot of life to our family. They’re someone to talk to when we are sad, play with when we are bored, they really enrich our family life – even the two little rats. They are super entertaining and are great pets,” Hopper says with a laugh. “They are part of our family.”


Celebrate National Pet Day April 11

In honor of National Pet Day, consider celebrating our furred and feathered neighbors by adopting a pet or volunteering at a local shelter.

The Kansas Humane Society has been providing services to homeless pets since 1888. In 2015, they were able to find homes for 83 percent of the animals that came through their doors – a success rate that would not be possible without the scores of volunteers and people who value the animal lives the society seeks to save. In addition to facilitating adoptions, the Humane Society also provides spay and neutering services, grooming, dog training and end of life services.

If you are looking to adopt a pet, the Humane Society has a program called Meet Your Match that will help pair you with the right animal for your lifestyle.

“When you come out to adopt, our questionnaire doesn’t ask whether you have a fence,” says Melissa Houston, director of communications for KHS. “The questionnaire is about helping people find the animal that best suits them.”

The shelter uses a three-color system to indicate energy level, with nine personality types within each color. Houston says using the color system is a useful tool that points people in the right direction when choosing a pet. The adoption process takes 30-45 minutes, although it may be a little longer if the adopter is introducing family members or a family pet to the potential adoptee.

“When you adopt a pet from the Humane Society, you aren’t only saving the life of the pet you are adopting, but you are also opening space for another animal – it has a trickle down effect,” Houston says.

For animal lovers who don’t wish to adopt but want to support the shelter, Houston says the shelter offers a number of different volun- teer activities, many of which are as much a service to the volunteers as they are to the animals. Volunteers are needed at the shelter to help with the care and upkeep of the animals and the facility, as well as for outreach and educational programs including youth education, scouting programs, birthday parties and critter camps for kids. In addition, the shelter uses volunteers to take shelter animals to visit area nursing facilities.

Other unique programs include a volunteer program specifically for veterans and a monthly event called “Read to Rover,” which provides socialization for dogs and gives kids an opportunity to practice reading in a relaxed, no-pressure setting.

“Overall, we have around 1,300 active volunteers who put in 80,000 hours a year,” Houston says of the incredible network of people who donate their time to support the Humane Society. “We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers.”

For more information about KHS, visit kshumane.org.

 
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