JLAP: For the love of therapy dogs

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Reggie Wayne comes to work at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun nearly every day. While he neither prepares dispositive motions nor closes deals, he provides a great benefit to the firm. Reggie is a certified therapy dog. His owner, Rhonda Treesh, is an administrative assistant at PSRB. Though Reggie is not serving in his capacity as a therapy dog at the firm, Reggie has provided countless hours of therapy in a variety of places, including schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and funerals.

Most organizations require a rigorous evaluation to certify a therapy dog. The dog and the handler must pass the evaluation as a team. The certifier is looking for signs that the dog is calm and easily controlled by the handler. Therapy dogs cannot be aggressive, anxious, jump on people or misbehave. Reggie was certified through Love on a Leash.

Terry Harrell is executive director of the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program. Terry and I certified our dogs, Gus and Gryffin, through Therapy Dog International several years ago. It takes much more than an outstanding temperament to become a certified therapy dog. We had to prove that our dogs would not accept an offered treat from a visitor and could walk by a delicious pile of meat on the floor without a physical correction.

Loretta Oleksy, JLAP’s deputy director, also has a therapy dog, Kirby. Indianapolis Obedience Training Club, Inc. trained Kirby many years ago, before therapy dogs were cool. One of the most important uses of JLAP’s therapy dogs is in helping JLAP get its message out. For years, JLAP staffed tables at law school events, bar association events, judicial conferences, and any other possible event but received few visitors because of the stigma surrounding JLAP issues — substance use, depression, ADHD and anxiety. No one would dare visit the JLAP booth for fear that event goers may think the person was seeking help from JLAP. Kirby, Gus and Gryffin (before he passed away) provided the perfect distraction. Event attendees are much more open to listening to what JLAP has to offer when they are scratching the ears of a well-behaved therapy dog. In addition, Oleksy says she receives requests for Kirby’s attendance at support groups and appointments with some JLAP participants who find his presence comforting.

Paws and Think is yet another great therapy dog certification nonprofit. It has three distinct therapy dog programs — Youth Canine, Pet Therapy and Reading Education Assistance Dogs. Participation in these programs requires a Paws and Think Therapy Skills Certification, which is recognized by the American Kennel Club.

Paws and Think’s Pet Therapy program is like the programs identified above. Dogs and their handlers attend various events to provide comfort and support. The Youth Canine and READ programs are more involved. Youth Canine programs work with area animal shelters and local agencies and schools with at-risk children to provide a dog in need of training with a child in need of unconditional love and accomplishment. The original program, Pawsitive Corrections, pairs a juvenile from Marion County Juvenile Detention Center with a dog from Indianapolis Animal Care Services. The dog stays at the Detention Center for one week. Each day after school, a Youth Canine volunteer works with the youth to train the youth on how to train the dog. The goal is to have the dog pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. The CGC test includes 10 objectives the dog must pass, all of which are also necessary to be certified as a therapy dog in most programs: accepting a friendly stranger; sitting politely for petting; allowing someone to check the dog’s ears and front feet; walking on a loose lead; walking politely through a crowd; sit and down on command and staying in place; coming when called; behaving politely around other dogs; calm reaction to distraction; and being left with a trusted person for short periods of time.

At the end of the week, the youth takes the dog through the CGC evaluation. Most dogs pass and are provided a CGC title, which includes a certificate that will be placed on the dog’s kennel when the dog returns to the animal shelter. The CGC title significantly increases a dog’s chance of being adopted. The youth is also provided with a completion certification. The youth, then, not only has accomplished something for which he or she can be proud, but also has objective evidence to present to the judge in the youth’s juvenile case that the youth has been participating in positive activities. This program is so successful that last year Paws and Think expanded the program to add the Hamilton County Youth-Canine Program (pairing dogs from the Humane Society of Hamilton County with youth from Hamilton Youth Assistance Program) and the PAWs (Pups and Warriors) Program at Warren Central. These programs increase self-confidence and self-esteem in youth who may not be presented many opportunities to show their successes.

READ is a national program where volunteer teams go to local elementary schools to work with children who are underperforming in reading. The volunteer and his or her dog work with the same child all semester, generally once a week. The child reads to the dog; READ volunteers have been trained to subtly ask the child questions along the way to gauge the child’s comprehension of the material. Nina Esbin, board president for Paws and Think, reports that data suggest the program is a success and reading skills of the participants are increasing.

If you have a great dog that can be certified as a therapy dog, you should consider becoming a volunteer. Working with your dog to help others provides endless contentment for you and your dog. When Rhonda talks about Reggie, the love and admiration for her canine companion is palpable. “Dogs have a way of understanding people, especially during difficult times when people are grieving,” she said. “People can connect with a therapy dog because the dogs have such a calming effect.”

Tonya Bond is a Partner at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP and has served as a JLAP volunteer since 2004. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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