Most people are familiar with dogs that assist their blind or otherwise disabled owners. Certified therapy dogs offer a trained and therapeutic service to many elderly and hospitalized patients.
When you think of a therapy dog, most people envision a beautiful golden retriever in a vest, proudly sitting next to a sick child or consoling an elderly patient.
Have any of you ever thought about shelter dogs as therapy animals? These “run of the mill” canines are often forgotten, although they have so much to give to the communities. This was the basis for a program I helped start up in my undergraduate years at NC State University, and have continued volunteering with throughout my first year in the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine.
These shelter dogs are part of a program called Canine Assisted Rehabilitation for the Elderly Inc. (C.A.R.E. NC Inc), a 501-C3 non-profit based out of Raleigh, NC that has dedicated its mission to training shelter dogs and preparing them to become welcomed therapeutic visitors. These dogs, trained by pre-veterinary students, are evaluated by a professional animal behaviorist at the Wake County SPCA and professional dog trainer for temperament and learned basic commands in order to prepare them for their life changing visits.
These selected and trained dogs are taken on weekly visits to local assisted living facilities to meet and mingle with the elderly who otherwise would not have this pleasant contact. Many seniors have to give up their pets upon moving into these residential facilities.
When I walk around with dogs such as Firefly, an American staffordshire mix
who was selected for her love of people and a contagious smile, people who would normally shy away from such a large dog came up to ask questions, give her a hug and a nice pat on the head. Usually, I have a very hard time distinguishing who was having a better time, Firefly or the grateful senior.
Some therapy dogs pay informal social visits to people to boost their spirits, while others work in a more structured environment with trained professionals like physical therapists and social workers to help patients reach clinical goals, such as increased mobility or improved memory.
C.A.R.E. NC’s mission is simple: to transform the lives of the elderly of Wake County through the healing power of dogs. I encourage all veterinary students to remember that life during your four years in a DVM program is not always about making the grade and class rank.
Sometimes, it’s the little moments of watching a senior citizen in your community smile for the first time or that pitbull you thought would never get adopted, walk out of the SPCA to spend the rest of her life in a very loving home. Veterinary medicine has many goals, and first and foremost is service to the animals and the people who love them.
Danielle Lindquist is a first-year student at NC State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. This article was originally written for the Vet Gazette, a publication of the Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) and was the fist-place winner of the SAVMA “Experiences” competition. Danielle has been honored for care and compassion related to community involvement and dogs by “Dog is Good.” Danielle received the “Dog is Good” award based on her twin sister Desirae’s nominating essay.