Hairy therapy: Pets help heal local elderly

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

Sometimes a friendly face and furry back is exactly what the doctor ordered.
That is what Dorothy Nelson, 52, of the American Cancer Society believes. She just certified her personal pet, Mookie, as a therapy dog with Therapy Dogs International and joined the local chapter of Therapaws, which uses pets to help comfort cancer patients. The three-time cancer survivor knows just what it means to need some encouragement.
“I lost my dad last year to cancer,” said Nelson, community development manager for the region’s American Cancer Society. “Toward the end his little dogs were really a comfort to him.”
Though the Clovis resident is yet to begin her official visits with her feisty little “fluff ball” to the local hospitals and retirement homes, she already has a clear idea of what kind of work she wants to do.
“When I do go out on visits my preference will be to go to a retirement center,” Nelson said. “I think some of those people had to give up their pets to go into assisted living.”
Charmain Howard, 56, has seen pets bring relief to people under stress. Over the last four years, the Austin, Texas, native has logged 300 to 400 hours with her four dogs: Cosmo, Yover, Leaha and Bacchus. Her champion is her poodle Cosmo, with over 200 hours of visits.
“Sometimes the dog will sit by somebody and calm them down or cheer them up,” Howard said. “People like to talk about the pets they used to have and compare them to our pets.”
The Clovis chapter director of Therapaws is also the local veterinarian, Kristine Weaver, DVM. She moved to Clovis from northern New Mexico in 1995 and four years later began the local chapter by registering her dog with Therapy Dogs International.
“I have a dog that I certified in ’99 and I was contacted by the hospital regarding having therapy dogs come in,” Weaver said. “I thought it would be a good idea to get my dog certified for basic obedience reasons, and to see if there would be a niche in Clovis. I found that there wasn’t so I built one.”
Weaver said the chapter visits with patients at Plains Regional Medical Center, Retirement Ranch and Loral Ridge, among others. Weaver has also noticed how much the elderly patients appreciate seeing the animals. Most of them just like remembering their pets from long ago.
“Oftentimes you can see the patients with some senility, and those with early Alzheimer’s begin to remember something, and talk about their pets,” Weaver said. “It helps them through their anxieties; it’s everyone’s own personal pet.”
In order to certify your dog as a Therapy Dog it must meet certain behavioral and health standards. The Web site for Therapy dogs International — tdi-dog.org — explains the process in detail.
The pet must be tested for rabies, distemper, hepatitis and para-influenza. It must also pass an annual inspection to determine if it is mentally and physically healthy as well as free of contagious disease.
For information on the certification process, contact Therapy Dogs International at 973-252-9800, or the local chapter of Therapaws, which can be contacted through the Clovis chapter of the American Cancer Society.