A new path for career-change dogs

Sarena visiting kids at The Emerson School

Sarena visiting kids at The Emerson School

On a Tuesday afternoon at the Bridge to Independence treatment center in Damascas, OR, a client suddenly went into a seizure.  Here, in a day therapy program for people with traumatic brain injuries, these electrical brain storms aren’t unheard of.  Still, they can be disconcerting for visitors to witness.  As staff worked to stabilize the client, a visiting black Labrador named Flynn quietly watched — calm, still, gazing on with concern.  It was the first time he’d witnessed a seizure. 

When the convulsions stopped, the black dog seemed to know exactly how to help.  “He immediately wanted to come over and see if she was okay,” says Tori Eaton, the program’s occupational therapist.  “He gave her a nudge with his nose and she greeted him.  It gave us a chance to assess how her communication was after the seizure and how she was recovering.  And now we know it’s safe to have him around if someone’s having a seizure.” 

It was only the third time Eaton and her clients had seen Flynn, and the seizure experience further convinced Eaton of what she already knew:  Flynn has become a valuable member of their therapy team.  

“We try to do a placement so it’s the right fit,” says Kathy Loter, who matched Flynn with the brain injury program — one of the first therapy team assignments through Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams (PACTT), a partnership between DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital and Guide Dogs for the Blind.  Loter, who coordinates the program for DoveLewis, trains five teams per month, and matches them with facilities across the metro area.  “There’s a real screening process for our teams before we start the training.  First, at Guide Dogs for the Blind, there’s a face-to-face screening, then an assessment, then a lifelike experience that mimics an actual hospital visit.”  After these steps, the training process starts.  With 25 trained teams to date, Loter envisions many more to come, able to fan out through the community. 

“I want to see them anywhere that they can make a difference,” says Loter.  “We have them in the Kaiser Permanente Hospital, some are going through the volunteer training process at OHSU, they’re in Read-To-A-Dog programs at libraries, several assisted living and rehabilitation facilities, and homeless shelters.”  Eventually, she hopes her teams will comfort witnesses and crime victims in courtrooms, visit crisis shelters, and support people recovering from abuse. 

“I’m passionate about this.  I could talk about it all day, and I want to see it continue to grow. These career-change guide dogs,” Loter adds, “there’s just no better animal.” 

A career-change dog is one who was raised by Guide Dogs for the Blind from early puppyhood to about 15 months.  Training protocol exposes puppies to challenging environments from airports and busy intersections to shopping malls and hospital rooms.  Where other therapy dogs often begin their lives as pets and receive specialized training later, “these dogs have all of it from day one,” Loter says.  After they complete their training, even a skin condition or fear of elevators can prevent them from becoming official guide dogs, but they can still apply their training in other settings. 

The training makes a difference that observers like Eaton can easily see.  “There’s a lot of research that supports animal therapy as a way to engage people, and I can read the research all I want, but to see the changes directly in my clients, that’s extremely exciting.”   

Traumatic brain injuries can leave survivors with gaps in speaking ability, impulse control, social skills, and those needed for everyday tasks such as cooking or dressing.  At the day therapy program where they work to regain their skills, unflappable Flynn has quickly become a supportive friend who’s calm during a seizure, unfazed by sudden movements or sounds, and who interacts just as well with someone who can’t speak as with someone who has full verbal ability.  And these days, Eaton’s clients want to focus their skill-building activities on their new canine pal.  “They want to bake cookies for Flynn.  I’ll ask his handler if he can have homemade cookies, but if he can’t, our next activities will be around making toys or building obstacle courses that they can do together with Flynn.  I’m so glad we have him here twice a week.” 

Nixon visiting adults at The Stafford in Lake Oswego

Nixon visiting adults at The Stafford in Lake Oswego

“Bridge to Independence was a very touching experience,” says Loter, who adds that her human-canine teams face unique challenges at every facility.  “If you’re visiting with a patient who’s 100, you know there’s a real possibility they won’t be there the next time you visit.”  Walking into a hospital waiting room, where relatives may sit silent and ashen-faced while a loved one clings to life, it’s emotionally challenging.  But when a dog gently rests his head on someone’s lap, the oxygen returns to the room.  Color appears in people’s faces.  They break their silence and talk to the dog, and then they talk to each other.  

Careful screening and training prepare therapy teams for the emotionally-charged environments in which they deliver much-needed doses of levity and love.  But the dogs possess a uniquely canine knack for easing through even the toughest moments.  Loter has watched them work their magic time and again. No matter how hard or sad the environment, “The dogs are wagging their tails when they go in and they’re wagging when they come out.”

Michelle Blake lives and writes in Salem with three big dogs, three cats, and one very patient husband. She serves on the Oregon State Council of The Humane Society of the United States and is active with Fences For Fido, which builds fenced yards to free dogs from chains.