When a therapy dog visits a hospital, the first reaction it brings out in people is a big smile, said Katherine Feuillan, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist with Centegra Hospital.
“They accept you as you are,” Feuillan said of the dogs. “They want to please you, and they’re just so kind and gentle. The patients really respond to that.”
The visits not only serve as a destresser to patients and workers, but the dogs also can be used as motivation and healing tools, Feuillan said.
By recognizing their dog has the right demeanor, and going through the correct certification, dog owners in McHenry County have found ways to use their pets to help anyone from a patient in a hospital, a child with autism in class or a senior in their home.
Carol Skala of Huntley brings her 12-year-old Portuguese water dog, Sam, to Centegra’s facilities, working mostly with patients who are in rehabilitation.
A patient might not want to walk 200 feet down the hall, but when Sam comes in, taking the dog on a walk makes the task easier, Skala said.
Sometimes patients use flashcards with the dog or tell the dog commands to work on speech skills, Skala said.
“The one thing I come back to is that the dog gives them hope,” Skala said on why the dogs are effective. “[Patients think,] if a dog can understand me, soon a person will be able to, too.”
Feuillan said there are about 40 dogs and handlers who are part of the Caring Paws Animal Assisted Therapy Program.
Visits are made at Centegra’s three hospitals in McHenry, Woodstock and Huntley, and the Centegra Neuro-Rehabilitation Center and the Gavers Breast Center. Feuillan said the program could always use more handlers and dogs, and interested people can call 815-759-4626 to register for an upcoming workshop.
Aside from hospital visits, Skala and Sam also visit Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 ASPIRE program classes for students who have autism.
When Skala and Sam walked into an ASPIRE class with first- through third-graders during one of their weekly visits, the whole class sat patiently on the floor as they waited to pet the dog.
The school’s occupational therapist, Stephanie Olson, set up the therapy dog visits at the school about a year ago, she said. Aside from being fun, the visits give students motivation, and help them practice their patience skills and learn about community safety.
Students ask to pet Sam before they touch him. No matter how many students pet or hugged the dog, he stayed calm, even lying on the floor and rolling over for a belly rub at one point.
ASPIRE teacher Kelly Mosolino said her students’ faces light up when Sam comes in the classroom.
“Sometimes you don’t feel that connection with the kids because they’re internal with their sensory needs,” Mosolino said. “But you see some of that attention come out, and they bond with the dog in a different type of way.”
Skala also will write stories about Sam for the students to read, and play games such as having the students pick a color for her and Sam has to find it in the classroom.
Another group that benefits from therapy dogs is seniors.
Jackie Smith, senior companion program coordinator with Senior Services Associates, said the center has one handler and therapy dog pair who make home visits, but it’s looking for more. People interested in being part of the program can call Smith at 815-344-3555.
Dave Rigby, of Johnsburg, brings his 7-year-old yellow Labrador, Peter Pan, to the home of a senior in Hebron through Senior Services Associates’ program. Being part of a therapy dog program helps people who are lonely, and brings joy to everyone Peter Pan visits, Rigby said.
“[Dogs] just bring so much joy, and it makes people just kind of open up – they’ll talk, they’ll relax,” Rigby said. “If you just come up to talk to somebody, sometimes it can be kind of hard, but it seems like all walls just crumble when Peter walks in.”