October 28, 2004By JENNIFER J. HOWARD
Petting animals has shown to be therapeutic, but Tonya Walker, of Cumming, knows first-hand the happiness that comes with cuddling with an animal. She witnesses it six times a month when she volunteers in a pet therapy program in the Forsyth County Schools.
After seeing a television show on people using their personal pets in therapy programs, Walker decided to find a way to volunteer with her dog, Madi.
Madi seemed to attract children throughout the neighborhood long before Walker had her own children. The dog's patience while being petted by numerous munchkins from all directions was paramount.
"I just thought she had so much more to offer than lying on my kitchen floor," Walker said.
She contacted Therapy Dogs of Georgia and began her therapy work in January 2003, starting in nursing homes and assisted living centers.
"I enjoyed that. I would take the kids and the people there would love to see both Madi and the kids, but I didn't see the excitement in Madi," Walker said. "So I talked with Pam [president of the organization] to see about doing it in the schools."
There, her 9-year-old golden retriever is in her element.
Madi and Tonya mainly visit developmentally delayed children attending Sharon, Settles Bridge and Daves Creek elementary schools. It gives the children a break in the school day to cuddle with a familiar, furry friend.
"I keep doing it because every time I see the faces of the people we're helping, it's so rewarding," said founding president Pam Martin. "The dogs are miracles in themselves."
Martin launched the program in 1997 while working as a social service director for a local nursing home. Needing an assistant to help with reminiscence therapy for Alzheimer's patients, and having hardly the budget to pay someone, she recruited an abandoned golden retriever mix from the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter. Fenway, as she named the dog, attended obedience classes and he got a day job at the nursing home too. The organization became a non-profit 501 C3 organization in 2003 and now has 25 therapy teams.
Therapy Dogs of Georgia recently started rescuing dogs, training them and placing them permanently at area nursing homes and assisted living centers. Most recently a poodle-Shih Tzu mix was placed at the Sunrise Assisted Living Center in Alpharetta.
"Many of the elderly people in the nursing homes had pets of their own, but they were not able to bring them. Many get depressed," Martin said. "This provides a kind of medicine that a bottle of pills can't."
Not all dogs are good pet therapy candidates, however. They must be calm, gentle, easy-going dogs who want to work for people. Golden retrievers tend to work best, Martin said, but the group has a variety of breeds and mutts.
"A dog is either born to be able to do this or not," she said. "If you feel like your dog has that type of temperament, then the next step is obedience training."
Most dogs have several levels of obedience training and all of them are required to have the Canine Good Citizen Award from the American Kennel Club. It's not all work for the dog, either. Pet therapy requires a great deal of patience and kindness on behalf of the pet owner, as well as good listening skills.
"Some people get into and don't realize how stressful it can be. You are working with some people who have severe illnesses and/or disabilities. You are going to get to know these people and become their friend," Martin said.
Martin has been doing pet therapy for eight years. It isn't easy when someone dies, she said.
"It's hard, but you know that you were able to provide them with some type of comfort in their last years," she said.