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New Approach To Health Care Going To The Dogs
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Anyone who has ever owned a pet knows of the incredible love and acceptance they bring. Pets don’t care how the person looks or acts and accepts them unconditionally. For residents in challenging life situations at the Oak Valley Care Center, pets can be of special benefit.

Bob, a 3-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, has free roam of the facility and mixes with the residents and employees throughout the day. His peaceful demeanor and acquiescence make him the ideal companion dog for the center.

Sophie, a miniature schnauzer, is a certified therapy dog and visits Oak Valley Care Center regularly on Mondays. Her owner, Betsie Corwin of Oakdale, has been involved with Therapy Dogs International for the last six years and said Sophie has done about 250 visits to various places in the Stanislaus County area.

There are currently more than 35,000 therapy dogs in the U.S. Most work in hospitals, nursing homes, and physical therapy programs to comfort patients undergoing stressful procedures or to help people disabled by accidents or strokes regain mobility. The “pet teams” — dogs and their handlers — also visit schools, libraries, and shelters. Some dogs and owners volunteer in the court system to support victims of domestic violence as they prepare to testify. Simply stroking or hugging a friendly pup can bring relief and healing.

Patti Taylor, activities director for Oak Valley Care Center, has incorporated the companion dog and therapy dog programs into the center routine as part of an “Eden Alternative” philosophy to the facility.

“Plants, animals, children — all living things — are incorporated into the life style of the resident,” Taylor said. “The belief is that it is better to live in a garden than a nursing home.”

“The animals seem to know how to relate to people despite their condition,” Corwin added. “Even confused people can relate to the dogs.”

Taylor also pointed to a growing acceptance of the philosophy.

“This culture change is a new way of delivering long-term care,” she said. “This method is now being embraced by federal government health care agencies.”

To become a certified therapy dog, Sophie had to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test. The exam has many facets that measure the dog’s behavior, obedience, appearance, and vulnerability for distraction. Therapy Dog International had an additional battery of assessments for Sophie’s reaction to wheelchairs, people walking on crutches and maneuverability between carts and beds without distraction.

Corwin said she became interested in having Sophie become a therapy dog when she was taking obedience classes in the Bay area. While there, she met others who were in the program. After she moved to Oakdale she and Sophie went through the process to become certified.

In addition to visits and bonding, some of Corwin’s presentations include skits by Sophie and other therapy dogs.

“They love it,” said Corwin about the response she’s received. “Visitors like it too.”

Taylor said that Bob has been a well-received and accepted member of the Oak Valley community. Bob has a regular visitor who works in the coding department of the main hospital that comes to take him for walks and Bob has attended hospital events where he has been recognized and greeted by the staff from various departments.

Bob has also made special bonds with residents and family members of Oak Valley Care Center. When a resident was terminal, Bob stayed by her bedside for two weeks during her final days. After she passed her family still came to visit Bob and even presented him with a special engraved collar to show their gratitude.

 “This is a holistic change in delivering health care,” said Taylor. “We’re not just treating the physical, but (also) the spiritual and emotional.”

Service and therapy dogs are gaining acceptance, enough so that they are now protected by laws allowing them entry into public places that were banned for pets. Federal law allows for the animals access into all areas of a facility where customers are normally allowed to go.