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Therapy dogs soothe stress, fetch smiles

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Dogs and owners help community in Delta Society's "Pet Partners" program.

By April Wright, Reporter

 

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As Jordan, the large, fluffy, white-coated Great Pyranees sprawls out belly-up on the gym floor of Woodlawn School, dozens of smiling Special Olympics children eagerly rush over to rub him down.
Jordan, born with a crooked front paw, was going to be put down by the breeder because of his disability. But Heather Jenkins Brazzell, veterinarian and owner of Healing Springs Animal Hospital in Galax, believes that all animals serve a purpose — to make lives more enjoyable, happier and healthier.
Jordan now serves as a Delta Society therapy dog, bringing comfort to the young and young at heart.
Delta Society Pet Partners dogs and handlers greet patients at hospitals, nursing homes and rehab centers and serve in schools, libraries and special events to comfort and provide positive therapy.  
The program, established in 1990, is a national non-profit that provides dog therapy and companionship for those in need. It trains and screens volunteers and their pets for visiting animal programs in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and other facilities.
It links volunteers with facilities in their own communities that request visiting pets and helps Pet Partners contact facilities to begin visits in new locations.
Research shows that pets reduce blood pressure, stress and anxiety levels.  
Today, Jordan inspires others with disabilities.
“When one Special Olympics player saw Jordan, she said, ‘His foot is like mine,’” said Vickey Ritchie, coach of the Carroll County Special Olympics basketball team. “She said ‘That dog is beautiful and I am, too.’ These dogs bring so much joy to these kids and to have these dogs come to each practice means a lot to the kids.”
Only seven dogs in Galax and the Twin County area have become certified as Delta Society dogs. Brazzell, an evaluator for Delta Society, hopes to recruit more volunteer handler/pet teams in the area to go to nursing homes, reading programs, hospitals, Special Olympics and other events.
Brazzell performs tests on these pets for dog owners who are interested in the program. To start, Delta Society tests for the dog’s skills (how well it handles interaction with strangers) and aptitude (the level of crowd interaction it can handle).
Because safety is at the forefront, pets are tested in different social scenarios and settings, in which dogs must not show any aggression. These tests are an all-day event, about 8-10 hours long, and dogs may qualify for different levels, ranging from predictable (being able to handle small crowds) to complex (being able to handle large crowds).
Once certified, volunteers receive a $1 million primary liability insurance when volunteering.
“There is a two-fold benefit,” said Brazzell. “Handlers get to spend time with their pets and give back to the community.”
During reading programs, for example, dogs help to enhance literacy skills of children. Children may be too nervous to read to adults, but reading to dogs establishes comfort for them, she said.
And during Special Olympics games and practices, dogs are the cheerleaders. They are there for support. If the players get stressed, these pets help them decompress before the game, during breaks and after the game.
“Children are so happy when they see these dogs,” said Brazzell. “During a big event, these kids come from all over, but they’re talking and become friends. And the common denominator is the dog. And it adds to their day.”
At nursing homes and hospitals, patients come out of their rooms, smiling from ear to ear when they see these creatures walk through the door.
For autistic children, dogs provide a sense of security and a new, tactile experience.
These pets and handlers serve at special events, such as Relay for Life walks. “The dogs are there in case someone has emotional issues,” said Brazzell. “They can help calm them down.”
Brazzell and her friend Stephanie Burnette became a part of Delta Society a few years ago and both have since become evaluators for Southwest Virginia.
“We travel together as a group, and we love our dogs and we get to create these experiences with our dogs,” said Burnette, whose two dogs, both rescued animals, are a part of Delta Society.
“The misconception is that therapy dogs have to be pure breeds, but that’s not true,” she said. “These dogs can come from a shelter and do great things.”
Although Brazzell would like to provide more dog therapy services locally, many don’t know about Delta Society, she said. Most of their volunteer services have been done in North Carolina.
Brazzell said she is hoping that more come to know about the program and request dog therapy services locally.
“We want to use dogs and get the word out about the program,” said Brazzell. “Dogs have a lot to offer and can do something more than being chained up in the backyard. Through this, I want people to be able to embrace the human-animal bond.”

Brazzell plans to perform Delta Society evaluations in November. However, each dog should have basic obedience skills. Healing Springs will be offering basic obedience classes for seven weeks, beginning Sept. 28. Training can begin as early as 4-5 months old. For more information about Delta Society, call Healing Springs Animal Hospital at 236-5103. Healing Springs is located at 107 Nuckolls Curve Road, off U.S. 58 West, in Galax.