Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Love on a Leash

Being the CFO of Front Porch is a pretty intense job, so when I’m not working, I like to do things that are totally unrelated to business and money. One of the passions I’ve discovered since coming to Front Porch is having a dog and sharing him with the community. In 2010, my husband and I decided to adopt a rescue dog. We were fortunate enough to find Mowgli, a Pomeranian mix who is one of the best dogs ever! Not only is he really cute, but his personality is perfect for his new “career.”

Mowgli is a certified four-legged therapist, and I’m his handler. You may wonder what a certified therapy dog is. Therapy dogs provide comfort, companionship and plenty of smiles to hospital patients, retirement community and care center residents, school children and countless others throughout the United States. Their purpose is to make people happy by sharing their love. Mowgli and I have been to several Front Porch communities to visit with the residents, and also regularly volunteer at St. Mary’s Hospital in Long Beach. It is really gratifying when patients who see him each week say, “Oh, I’ve been waiting for him” or comment about how much better they feel just to be able to stroke his fur and look into his soulful brown eyes. Mowgli is a big kisser too; if people want “doggie kisses,” he is happy to lick their hands and faces for hours.

I’m often asked how dogs can become certified therapy dogs. Many schools, skilled nursing care centers and hospitals require that a dog be certified through a reputable organization before they will allow the dog to come for visits. This is a good idea because certified therapy dogs have to pass a test confirming their reliable behavior in a variety of circumstances that could be stressful for many. The organization Mowgli is certified by is called Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org), which is the oldest and largest therapy dog organization in the United States.

In addition to having a current veterinary exam certifying good health and current vaccination certificates, in order to become a therapy dog through TDI, a dog must pass 15 tests. There is a complete list of the tests on the website, but generally the tests confirm the dog’s ability to obey the handler’s commands, react well to other dogs and people, and react well to things commonly present in a hospital or care center setting such as walkers, crutches, etc. If you have a dog that has a calm and obedient disposition, yet is friendly, affectionate and confident, you and your dog could be ideal candidates for the TDI program.

There are many organizations that appreciate therapy dogs, including hospitals, senior communities, care centers and schools. At some point in their lives, almost everyone has owned or been close to a dog. It is amazing to see people’s eyes light up when they have the opportunity to pet a dog and remember their own special friends from the past. Several times, nursing staff has commented to me that residents with Alzheimer’s or dementia became noticeably more responsive when Mowgli came to see them.

It is really rewarding to be able to care for and share my special doggie. One of the misperceptions I had before I got him was that dogs like to be indulged and treated like people. I learned that they really don’t. Dogs need structure and positive discipline, and they are happier when their owner is the “pack leader.” They actually get stressed out when their owner doesn’t take a firm lead because they think they need to step in and fill the void, but don’t really know how. This is what often leads to bad dog behavior. One great piece of advice I read was not to tolerate any behavior in a small dog (such as jumping on people) that you wouldn’t tolerate in a large dog. Mowgli’s obedience training helped me become a better dog owner/handler, and prepared both of us well for the TDI testing. When Mowgli won his first place trophy in novice obedience, I knew he was a special boy!

Many people comment to me that they wish they had a dog, but just can’t because they live in a condo or apartment. I understand that challenge, and used to think the same thing. My husband and I live in a 4th floor condo with no access to a yard of any kind, so we have to walk Mowgli three or four times per day. We already had two cats and weren’t sure how well they would like living with a dog. It was an adjustment for all of us, but has been SO worth it! Not only do we stay on a regular exercise program more easily, but the joy and love he has brought into our lives far exceed the extra work involved. If you’ve ever thought about getting a dog, I encourage you to take the plunge. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without your furry friend!

— Mary Miller