I just want to say a few words about my dog, Charlie. He is a three-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and just over a year ago I had him evaluated to be a therapy dog with Saint John Ambulance. Ever since then we have been visiting regularly at a local retirement home.
Of course Charlie was already a therapy dog long before his official assessment. When we walk down the street, people always smile, and whenever someone comes to visit, the women always want to take him home in their bag! Now when we visit at the retirement home, the instant we walk through the doors, people whistle or call out to him from the lounge, and he starts whining and pulling to get over and see his regulars as quickly as possible. He loves to jump into their laps (only with permission of course!) and kiss them and give them a good scrub. You never know, someone might have missed a spot when they washed their hands after lunch. Then he has to check out the rug and under the chairs for the miniscule crumbs that might be hiding, and try to climb onto the huge round coffee-table in case there’s a bite there that someone forgot. Everyone smiles and laughs when Charlie comes to visit, and the energy level in the room rises as he provides his own unique style of therapy.
Visiting at the retirement home has been incredibly rewarding. Charlie does so much good and brings so much joy that some days it is almost indescribable.The cuddling, the touching, the affection that is given and received with no strings attached—it is wonderful to see. There are a few people who seem to benefit from Charlie’s visits even more than others do, so I try my best to see them each week if I can. One woman has no family and never had a dog but has made such a connection with Charlie that if we don’t see her, he looks at me as if to ask, Where is she? Another woman misses her dog dreadfully and when Charlie settles down in her lap and she strokes him, she almost goes into a reverie as she talks and croons to him. She is so very grateful for this short, sweet visit. With some people we talk about books, or knitting, or they tell me about their family or the dogs they once loved and still miss. Sometimes Charlie is a catalyst and sometimes he is the whole focus. Whether he is in a playful mood or wanting a quiet cuddle, giving kisses or getting into mischief, Charlie raises the spirits of the people we meet, simply by being himself. He loves everyone and his tail does not stop wagging for a second. His obvious happiness and contentment touches everyone in his orbit.
We love visiting at the retirement home and will continue there, but there is another part to the therapy dogs program that I’ve wanted to try and that is working with children. St. John Ambulance volunteers help children with special needs and they also participate in a reading program. Children with reading difficulties choose a story to read aloud to the dog. The supportive, nonjudgmental environment helps to boost their confidence; after all, the dog isn’t going to ask them to repeat something or correct their pronunciation! As an avid reader, freelance editor and former librarian, books and reading have always been important to me and the idea of helping a child discover the joy in reading, with Charlie’s assistance, is very appealing.
So, once Charlie had proven that he was quite accomplished at comforting and entertaining the elderly, we signed up to have him evaluated to work with children. Since there are no little ones running around my house, I often taken Charlie to the park where children are playing, running, throwing things and generally making noise. I let them pet him and pull his hair and tail (gently of course) but right from the start I wanted him to get used to children, with their high voices and sudden movements. Charlie usually lies down or stands with his tail wagging, or tries to kiss them, so I was pretty sure he’d be a prime candidate for working with little ones.
Charlie and I were first on the list for the assessment and as we waited to see what was going to happen, Charlie watched the children, and eyed all the toys on the floor, tail wagging in anticipation of something fun in store. We were put through our paces with various activities to test his tolerance for noise and active play, listening to me, not hogging the toys, and greeting each child in a friendly manner.
Then came the final test, the one I was dying to do. Charlie and I sat down on a mat and a tiny little eight-year-old girl joined us and read Charlie a story. We listened to her sweet, high voice tell a tale about dogs (of course), of all colours and stripes, who were trying on hats. They constantly asked each other’s opinion and were very honest if something didn’t suit! We were entranced. Unfortunately, she had to stop before she could finish the book, so we never got to hear the ending!
No surprise, Charlie passed everything with flying colours and we have a couple of new assignments. We will continue at the retirement home, but we will also start visiting regularly at a middle school to help a class of children with special needs, and occasionally participate in the reading program at the local library. I can’t wait to see how Charlie and the children interact, and of course I’m looking forward to hearing some more fantastic stories, picked out specially for Charlie.
If you have any inclination towards volunteering, I encourage you to consider the SJA therapy dogs program. Seeing what joy your dog can bring into other people’s lives, with so little effort, is a very great reward.