All Dogs go to Heaven

Dogs that run, bark, and help those in pain

Story and photos by Nicole Weber
Photos courtesy of Steve Reiman

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They run with you, they cuddle with you, they listen to you complain, and they’re loyal. “A man’s best friend” is a dependable companion, but dogs can be so much more. Dogs can sniff out a crime scene, hear someone yelling from a far distance, help someone cross the street, or pull a wheel chair.

Elizabeth Pearl of Pearl Physical Therapy in Plattsburgh, NY, has been working in animal assisted therapy for ten years. Pearl started working with dogs in the therapy field at Pets on Wheels in Baltimore with Cody, her first Labrador retriever.

Pets on Wheels is a not-for-profit volunteer organization that specializes in animals assisted therapy.  All dogs that work with Pets on Wheels have to pass a temperament test in order to work in a nursing home, or any other medical institute. The test is comprised of a series of things, such as having someone come up and pinch the dog’s tail, or dropping something near the dog. This is done to make sure the dog won’t react aggressively if something similar were to happen in an every day situation. If the dogs doesn’t handle it well, it can’t work in a therapy setting.

Therapy Dogs of Vermont consists of 230 volunteer members, all of which have had their dogs certified through three temperament tests. Therapy Dogs of Vermont has gone 20 years without an incident. Steve Reiman, founder and president of Therapy Dogs of Vermont says that he believes their temperament test is more difficult than other organizations.

"Animals can recognize needs in patients whether it’s pain, or something else."

Margot Zeglis, retired executive director of Lake Forest Senior Living Community, and Pine Harbor Assisted Living also studied animal assisted therapy while working in Evergreen Valley nursing home. According to Zeglis, she was the first in the county to start practicing animal assisted therapy in the late 1980’s. About half of her dogs were registered with Therapy Dogs International and went through temperament tests similar to those that Pets on Wheels conduct.

“I recognize the importance of animals in senior citizen community,” Zeglis says. “Animals can recognize needs in patients whether it’s pain, or something else.”

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Reiman gets choked up every time he retells this story. He explains that he went to see a little girl with an eye patch. His dog at the time would never leave his sight, but went over and hopped onto the girls bed. The dog then licked the girls chin, which was surprising to Reiman because the dog wasn’t a very affectionate dog. By the end of the day Reiman says the little girl says to her mom, ‘Ok mom, I want to live now.’

Zeglis tells a story about an therapist working in animal assisted therapy who insisted on entering a room of a patient who hadn't spoken a word since the day he moved in. “The dog put his paw on the bed, and then moved his paw closer and then eventually the man put his hand on the paw. Five minutes later he was talking to the dog about all the dogs he had,” Zeglis says. The patient carried on a conversation for 40 minutes, but didn’t talk to the nursing aide.

“People feel more at home with dogs,” Pearl says.  They provide unconditional love.” Pearl says that patients are more inclined to do exercise activities when dogs are involved. “I’d get patients to throw the ball to the dog, and I would look at the dynamics of their arm when throwing. They would be sick in bed, but they would help the dog.”

In Baltimore, Pearl had a patient who was suffering from a stroke, which led to a problem with blood pressure. The patient’s blood pressure got really high, and she had to lie down. The patient called for the dog to lie next to her on the bed and her blood pressure went down within two minutes. “They take their focus off what’s bothering them, whether they’re sad, lonely, or anxious,” Pearl says.

"They take their focus off what’s bothering them, whether they’re sad, lonely, or anxious."

Even now, Pearl talks about a patient who will say she’s in pain when having to go through manual work, such as massages, but when petting the dog won't say a word about it. “People work through pain better when they’re around,” Pearl says.

Alan Goodman a patient of Pearl’s says, “I enjoy having (the dogs) around. They’re a nice distraction.”

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Pearl has also worked in Meadowbrook Healthcare nursing home with her second lab Ellie.  Pearl is currently raising and training sister puppies Zoe and Sadie, who are less than four months old.
Unconventionally Zoe and Sadie are starting in the field rather than being trained outside of an institutional setting, but Pearl feels that getting them used to the environment of a physical therapy facility will accustom them to what they will be doing later.

"All sorts of miracles happen with dogs."

All of Pearl's dogs have been female labs. Pearl says she prefers labs because, “they have good mannerisms. They’re smart.” Pearl also believes females are calmer. “They love to exercise, run around in the woods, play with people,” Pearl says about her puppies Sadie and Zoe.

Zeglis agrees that initially training dogs inside the field is the most beneficial. Zeglis has two dogs, Sammi who is 14 years old, and Amay who is a 7-year-old standard poodle. Both Sammi and Amay use to work in animal assisted therapy. Zeglis has no preference regarding the sex or the breed of a dog that will work in the therapy field.

Reiman says he has no preference for dogs that help in animal assisted therapy. Reiman did grow up with German Shepherds though, “they’re so intelligent. They would do anything you asked them to. They’re playful, happy, and love people.”

Therapy dogs not only benefit patients of nursing homes, and physical therapy facilities, thy also help adjust therapists themselves. Pearl says, “(after) taking the dog out for a walk my productivity increased.” Pearl says that she is happier at work when she brings a dog with her, “it gives you a break from work. They’re great for the employee or for the people.”

In all the ways dogs can help, Zeglis says they work powers above human understanding. “All sorts of miracles happen with dogs.”



Do your pets comfort you through health problems?

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