Marla and her dog, Kobie, were visiting patients at the Crete Hospital. As they prepared to leave for the day, a gentleman asked if Kobie could come visit his father. His father had had a stroke and wasn’t responding much to people talking to him. Marla asked Kobie sit on a chair by the sick man’s bed and then took the sick man’s hand and helped him pet Kobie’s head. The man began to smile. This was the first time he had smiled since having stroke. According to Marla Wademan, one of the founders of Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, it was a great honor to be part of someone’s like in this way. Moments like these exemplifies why pet therapy exists.
In 2003, Gale Lothrop and Marla Wademan started Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. as a way to strengthen the human-companion animal bond by allowing dogs to heal peoples’ hearts. Gale and Marla had already been doing therapy work as volunteers with the Angel Dog program at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital with their dogs Mysti and Kobie. While Gale and Maria loved volunteering at Madonna, they also wanted to visit and help people outside of the Madonna Hospital. To reach as many people as possible, they started their own therapy dog organization. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. now has approximately 70 members, with teams not only from Nebraska but also Kansas.
ALLISON: How did you set up contacts in the community?
MARLA: We basically used word of mouth at first. We then used the internet, newspapers, and social media.
ALLISON: What kind of training do you provide to potential therapy handlers and pets?
MARLA: We offer therapy dog classes for handlers and dogs. This class teaches handlers how to become a therapy dog team and how to use your dog to help bridge the gap between humans and animals.
ALLISON: What are the most typical places therapy pets are taken? What are the most unusual places therapy pets have gone?
MARLA: Our teams go to a variety of places. We have teams visiting hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, schools, college campuses, after-school programs, and businesses. We go where people need the love of a dog.
ALLISON: How often do therapy visits happen? How long is each visit? What do visits consist of?
MARLA: We ask our members to visit a minimum of twice a month. The length of the visits very from time to time. You may have a visit run longer because a client is having a bad day and really needs more time with the therapy dog.
I visit at Crete High School’s after school program twice a month. The length of our visit depends on how many students are there and how many need to see my therapy dog, Barkley.
We ask our members to keep their visits to no more than an hour and a half to two hours. The dogs get tired and we need to make sure we take care of our dogs.
Our visits consist of listening to the person we are visiting. It is amazing how our therapy dogs help start a conversation. We may ask the person if they ever have had a dog or just how his or her day is going. When people start to touch and pet our therapy dogs, people just open up.
ALLISON: What are some of your memorable pet therapy moments?
MARLA: I always tell the teams who take our class that your dog will know who needs them. I was giving a presentation about Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc., at a church in Lincoln. My current therapy dog, Barkley, was with me. While I was speaking, Barkley caught the eye of a gentleman in the group I was speaking to. Barkley kept looking at this gentleman. When I was finished with the presentation, the gentleman came up to Barkley and me. Barkley immediately bonded with the gentleman. I found out that the gentleman had just lost his dog. He was still grieving for his dog and Barkley knew it. He sat for the longest time just petting Barkley.
Everywhere Barkley and I visit, everyone knows Barkley. I’m kind of invisible and that’s just fine with me. In fact, Barkley and I were visiting some high school students. Barkley and I have been visiting the students since August. One of the students, who was down on the floor with Barkley, looked up at me and said,”What is your name?” I just had to laugh.
ALLISON: How did the R.E.A.D. program start?
Sometimes kids who are learning to read get stressed, not because they aren’t capable of reading, but because they get nervous and self-conscious. They worry about making mistakes, they worry about looking dumb–and all those worries make it hard to focus. They dread reading in front of their friends, so they often “freeze up” and things just get worse. When they read with a dog, right away they start to relax, and then they forget about feeling self-conscious or nervous, and pretty soon things start to flow a little better. Before they know it, they are enjoying the experience of reading instead of dreading it. They are even looking forward to the next time.–Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs
MARLA: R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dog. R.E.A.D. began in the fall of 1999. Sandi Martin, a registered nurse and board member of Intermountain Therapy Animals, thought that the benefits of therapy animals could also help children with reading. November 1999 was the first Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. They did a pilot program at one of Salt Lake City Libraries. The R.E.A.D. program was called “Dog Day Afternoons”.
Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. works with Intermountain Therapy Animals to provide training and reading programs. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs work with the Lincoln Libraries to provide a reading program called “R.E.A.D. to a Dog” and Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs Members help students with their reading twice a year. There is a fall and spring session. Parents sign their child up to read to one of our R.E.A.D. dogs for 15-20 minutes. Each session lasts for six weeks. It’s amazing to see a child relax and just read to a dog. The dog is nonjudgmental and has unconditional love for the child.
ALLISON: Why should someone volunteer with your chapter or a similar group?
MARLA: Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. wants people who are joining for the right reason. When you do therapy work with a dog, you become invisible at times. If you are not okay with that, then you need to find a different way to volunteer. Most of our clients can tell you our dogs’ name, but probably don’t know the member’s name. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. believes any therapy dog organization is worth taking a look at. Our members have numerous stories how their dogs have helped someone. That is what it is all about–helping people and giving people hope.
Healing Heart Therapy Dogs is a non-profit organization supported through annual membership dues. The group recognizes that interactions with specially trained animals help to transform a life of discouragement, fear, and sadness into one of happiness, independence, and hope. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs Teams serve as a bridge to help develop a caring relationship with children and adults in may settings. If dog therapy interests you, contact Healing Hearts Therapy Dog or the national R.E.A.D. program.