SEND IN THE DOGS
By Nancy Marano
“The dogs are coming!” Residents using canes, walkers and wheelchairs abandon their rooms to gain a better vantage point in the hallway. The dogs approach, tails wagging, ready to visit.
These dogs, and their owners, participate in the Southwest Canine Corps of Volunteers (SCCV). This Albuquerque organization, started in 1986, brings joy to people confined in nursing homes, hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
One of the most wrenching aspects of going to a nursing home is giving up a companion animal. Interacting with these dogs allows patients to remember their own animals and the happiness they shared.
“The greatest benefits we provide for patients is distraction from daily routine,” says Debbie Miller, an SCCV trainer.
Trainers look for certain qualities in both human and dog volunteers. Dogs must know basic obedience skills and be able to perform them in distracting situations. Friendliness is required. Dogs cannot be overly aggressive and must be able to work on a leash.
“We’re not looking for show ring obedience,” Debbie says. “We want nice dogs who are under control. This is like graduated work at doggie college.” Human volunteers need a friendly attitude and the ability to meet and talk easily with strangers. “We want someone who loves his or her dog and is willing to work hard at this volunteer position,” Debbie continued.
Interested volunteers are invited to an interview where dogs and people are screened. Five or six members from the thirteen member training team are present. They evaluate dogs, owners and their ability to work together. Of the seven teams at a recent screening session only three were chosen to continue in the program.
The second training session, titled PS (short for Pooper Scooper) 101, is for human trainees to learn rules, regulations and visiting techniques.
“People need to know what they can and can’t do as a volunteer,” Debbie said. “Your primary responsibility is your dog, not helping the patient.”
PS 102 orients dogs to medical equipment. This session is held at a rehabilitation facility where the dogs come in contact with wheelchairs, canes, walkers and other equipment. The handler must be aware of his dog at all ties. A patient might get too close with a wheelchair and run over the dog’s tail or put a cane down on the dog’s paw. It is the handler’s responsibility to keep the dog out of danger. A handler must also gauge the dog’s stress level.
Each trainee visits two nursing homes, two hospitals and two rehabilitation centers under a trainer’s supervision. Visits to nursing homes usually last about 45 minutes while it may take several hours at a hospital.
Volunteers follow a dress code consisting of a T-shirt, sporting the group’s logo, close-toed, rubber soled shoes, slacks or skirt, and a fanny pack containing the dog’s equipment. Handler and dog wear identity badges as official visitors.
Volunteers purchase liability insurance in case they are sued for something their dog does, and dogs need annual vaccinations and heartworm tests.
SCCV has 50-60 visiting teams at any one time. Some people have more than one certified dog, but a person may only take one dog per visit. This work is tiring for dogs, especially as they get older. It is important the owner realizes when the dog no longer enjoys visiting and retires that dog.
“These dogs don’t ask to go. They don’t sign up. They don’t commit,” Debbie says. “We encourage people who find their dog really doesn’t like doing visiting to stop. This definitely is not for every dog.”
Each volunteer gathers treasured memories of particular visits. One of Debbie’s favorites is of a little girl who spent most of her six years in the hospital with paralysis. She wanted to pet Debbie’s dog, Becky, but couldn’t use her hands. Then she wanted the dog to kiss her. Becky didn’t give kisses easily, but Debbie asked whether they could put some peanut butter on the girl’s cheek. The nurse did, and Becky licked it off. The little girl was thrilled because she could actually feel the dog’s tongue on her skin. After that each visit included a peanut butter kiss.
“It was really special to me because that little girl wanted a kiss, and my dog did it,” Debbie says. “I felt I contributed some happiness to her life.”
Debbie sums up the response of most volunteers when she says, “It’s such a feeling of accomplishment to help someone else. I’m not a nurse or a psychologist so I can’t do any of those things for another person but I can take my dog. It’s my contribution to the human race.”
For more information on the program, or to volunteer, write to Southwest Canine Corps of Volunteers, 6017 Quemado Dr. NE, Albuquerque 87010, or email Debbie Miller at email@example.com. Check out her website at www.nmia.com/~dmiller
Nancy Marano is a freelance writer living in Albuquerque.
This article first appeared in the Winter 1997-98 issue.
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