Healing paws: Pet therapy encourages, teaches, leads to recovery

LAWRECEVILLE - When Cindy Flanary gets ready for a day of volunteer pet therapy, her Labrador-Chow mix, Kokee, and Ruby, a Shih Tzu mix, race to the garage door and are ready to work. Flanary said the faithful pets know they're going to cheer someone up.

Whether it's listening to a child read a story or relishing tummy rubs, Flanary, director of a local chapter of Atlanta Therapaws pet therapy group, said Kokee and Ruby bring joy to the lives of people in Gwinnett.

"People's eyes just light up when you come into a room," Flanary said of the therapy. "When we go to libraries, the kids love it. At nursing homes, people often tell us about their own dogs or dogs they once had - they love it."

The Dacula woman and her therapy dogs are a registered therapy team certified by Therapy Dogs International Inc.

She said she and Kokee have been volunteering their time since 1998 - and said the pet therapy phenomenon is growing.

Flanary said she and the dogs make visits around the county one to two times a week.

"We really will go anywhere people ask us to come visit," Flanary said.

She said she, Kokee and Ruby enjoy the smiles she sees on people's faces when the dogs walk into a hospital room or classroom.

"Patients can't believe there's a dog in the room. It's really a nice break for (the patients)," she said. "And the kids love to see a dog in the school. At the library, their eyes just get huge when the dogs walk into the children's reading area."

A golden retriever named Misty is also a part of the Therapaws group. Misty and her handler, Deb Battle, a trauma clinical nurse specialist at Gwinnett Medical Center, also volunteer.

Battle said she and Misty visit the Gwinnett Extended Care and Gwinnett Medical Center once a month. In addition, Battle has received positive feedback from patients who have said it lifts their spirits when the dogs visit.

"What I didn't anticipate was what a morale booster it is for the staff," she said. "Even if you're not an animal lover, you can't help but take a second look at the dogs when they step off the elevator."

Atlanta Therapaws has many dogs of all shapes and sizes, Battle said.

"It's like a dog made to order," she said. "Whether a person likes a big dog or small dog, we have all kinds."

Although Battle said she spends a lot of time at work, she makes time for sharing her dogs with others.

"I'm passionate about animals and dogs, and you find the time to do the things you love," she said. "Oftentimes when you're in the hospital it's not a happy place, and this is a way to make people feel a little better."

Steps to becoming

a therapy dog

Flanary said she and her dogs went through a basic obedience and temperament test through TDI before they were certified and could make visits.

"The dog can't be afraid or uncomfortable around people and other dogs," Flanary said. "And they have to adapt to new sounds and situations easily."

She admits the animals can get tired and said they have to limit their visits to about an hour.

"The visits are mentally stressful for them," she said. "Even though it may seem like they're just getting petted and receiving love, they can get tired meeting new people."

In order to be certified by TDI, the dog and the handler must be evaluated by a TDI evaluator and the dog has to be at least one year old, have a good temperament, pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test and a temperament evaluation and must have a TDI health record form completed by a licensed veterinarian.

Annual dues are required from TDI members, according to the organization's Web site. The $35 yearly fee covers insurance for the dog and trainers as well.

For information on becoming a pet therapy team, call TDI at 973-252-9800 or visit www.tdi-dog.org.

Therapy testing

in Gwinnett

In addition to volunteering her time to lift the spirits of others with the help of her dogs, Flanary is a TDI registered evaluator. She grades animals and their handlers, testing them to see if they are ready to become a therapy team.

"Not every dog is meant for this," she said. "They could be great at home but you get them out in other situations and they may not react the same way as they did at home."

She said she holds evaluation sessions about four times a year.

Flanary's next evaluation in Gwinnett is slated to begin at 9 a.m. on March 10 at the Lawrenceville Kennel Club on Oakland Industrial Court. She said anyone can sign up but an appointment must be made with Flanary by calling 678-449-9585.