New Mexico's Pet Resource SPRING 2002


CANINE CORNER

RUFUS: PET THERAPY DOG

By Theresa Welch, J.D.

Rufus G. Welch, Dog Therapist

Pet therapy is something I had always wanted to do. I loved the idea of taking a dog into a hospital and visiting people. I read the research and articles that said having animals visit patients could lower blood pressure, and could help with people depressed due to their illnesses. But I am a rescuer of dogs. Whenever I find myself in a position to get a new dog, I have always gone to the local shelter and rescued an animal. Frequently I have taken animals with behavior problems. I have taken them to obedience school and they became wonderful, loving pets, but they lacked the characteristics needed for a good therapy dog.

That is until 1996. My dog Pepper died very unexpectedly. I visited the Santa Fe and EspaŮola animal shelters to see if I could find a dog that had a connection with me. The first time I saw Rufus, he was sitting in the back of the kennel. His fur was matted, he was shaking and looked miserable. But I was drawn by his face, and the fact that he was a golden retriever. It had always been a dream of mine to have a golden retriever. I had him come out of the kennel, but he would not look at me. I sat on the floor of the shelter, talking to him. The staff assured me he was a good dog, but afraid of people. It was clear he had been abused and neglected. In my mind I decided that if he licked me before I got up, I would adopt him. After half an hour it was clear he was not connecting with me. I hugged him, patted him on the head and said "You're a sweet dog, but you don't seem to be interested in me at all." Then I started to stand up and at the very last second Rufus turned his head and licked my cheek. From that moment my heart belonged to that sweet face.

It wasn't long before I realized he was the sweetest animal I had ever owned. Due to his history of abuse he was shy, but he liked people. Just two months after I adopted him I heard about the Santa Fe Shelter Pet Outreach Program. The shelter would screen your dog, and if it passed their tests it could become part of a pet therapy program. The tests were done in the shelter office, and they required a complete vet check to be sure the animal was healthy. All animals accepted were insured by the program. The animals in the program visit hospitals, rest homes, adult day care and retirement homes.

Rufus passed with flying colors, and in the past five years we have visited rest homes, retirement homes, and for the past three years we have visited Saint Vincent's Hospital. Rufus and I also visited elementary schools in Santa Fe to "tell" the children about the program, and to discuss humane treatment of animals in our lives. He has been on two TV news shows, and in New Mexico Magazine. He has become well known in Santa Fe.

There are many stories to tell of his visits. I will share two with you here. I can tell you that Rufus' instincts into what a patient needs are always surprising. He knows what it is that people want.

Therapy dogs frequently sit in chairs by the patientís bedside. The dogs are allowed on beds, but I never let Rufus get up until I know if it is okay with the patient. You have to be careful. Some patients have had hip surgery, or abdominal surgery, and a dog on the bed could cause problems. Rufus always waits to get on the bed until I tell him it is okay. One night, as we entered a room Rufus leapt on the bed and laid down next to the woman, leaned into her and put his head on her chest. I quickly tried to make him get down, worried that he might have hurt her. Then she looked up with tears in her eyes and said, "That is just what I wanted him to do as soon as I saw him." Rufus knew, but I got a scare.

Another evening at Saint Vincent's we stopped at the door of a room where the patient was clearly very ill. She had a tracheotomy, was barely conscious, and had end stage cancer. I asked her brother if he would like us to come in. He thanked us, but said his sister had been given so many drugs that she would not know that Rufus was there. While we were visiting a patient in the next room, I saw the brother standing outside the door in the hall, waiting for us. When I came out he told me that his sister had heard the word "dog" and responded. He asked if I would mind coming back and visiting her. We walked back to the room, and I pulled a chair up next to the bed. Rufus promptly jumped into the chair. Because of all the drugs, the patientís brother had trouble getting her to turn her head in Rufus' direction. She briefly opened her eyes, saw him and then closed her eyes again. Rufus seemed to sense that she had trouble focusing, so he leaned over and began to lick her hand. For the next five minutes Rufus never stopped quietly and gently licking the woman's hand. He seemed to know the only way she would know he was there was to make contact with her. And he did. It's the only time in all the years we have been visiting that he has licked anyone for several minutes. He knew better than anyone how to tell her he was there and to comfort her.

There is a real satisfaction in working with a pet therapy dog. I get as much, or more, out of it than the patients. There is a never a day we do visits that I don't come away marveling at the insight Rufus has as to what people need. He has truly gone from abused and abandoned, to a contributing member of society.

More information about social/therapy dogs:

Santa Fe Animal Shelter Pet Outreach, (505) 983-4309, animals@sfhumanesociety.org, www.sfhumanesociety.org

Southwest Canine Corps of Volunteers (Albuquerque), dmiller@nmia.com, www.nmia.com/~dmiller

Assistance Dogs of the West (Santa Fe), Jill Felice (505) 986-9748, www.assistance-dogs-intl.org

Los Alamos Caring Canine Companions, Lynn Wysocki-Smith (505) 661-9619, www.cyberanimals.net/lac3, tewapack@rt66.com

Theresa Welch, J.D., writes the column "Animals and the Law" for Petroglyphs.


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