On her very first day in the Rehabilitation Wing of Memorial Hospital at Gulfport she got a visit from Redmen, a wonderful Pomeranian who is a certified therapy dog. Joan Webb is his owner, handler and trainer. One look into his eyes and you can tell that she is also the love of his life.
On day two in Rehab she was visited by Buddy, who lit up the room when he entered.
Day three brought Peaches to visit. Peaches is a mid-sized, mixed breed dog who loves people and lives to serve.
Missing our little Pearl, Brenda was tremendously uplifted by all three of her canine visitors.
I was immediately reminded of a deceased patient, Dixie White House. Dixie was a stray discovered at the nursing home of the same name in Pass Christian,. MS. My client, Aline Gerard took her in one day while visiting her mother, who was a resident there. She already had a cat named Serafina and while Dixie always wanted to be friends, Serafina could only bring herself to tolerate the intruder.
Dixie became a certified therapy dog and visited nursing homes all over the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She was always so proud when she wore her “working jacket.”
I sat down today with Joan Webb and we discussed her and Redmen’s story and how they got into therapy work.
About five years ago Mrs. Webb had back surgery, then was sent to a rehabilitation service similar to Memorial’s. A therapy dog came to visit her there and had an immediate and lasting impact. The seed was planted for her later interest in giving back.
Joan had lost a Pomeranian previously and longed for another. Her loving and helpful daughter went online and found a breeder who claimed to have an excellent line of Pomeranians. Joan’s daughter made personal contact and the breeder said he had a two-year-old male that was ready for sale. A deal was struck and “Red” was delivered to Joan, who was still in a wheelchair following her hospitalization.
“Red” didn’t know his name was Red, and Joan didn’t like the name much anyway, so she added “men” and Redmen was christened.
Joan’s first shock came when she went to see her veterinarian. Redmen wasn’t two, but more like five years of age. Furthermore, he was sick with a terrible bacterial infection. During his first dental prophylaxis he had eleven teeth extracted.
Joan was furious and felt as if she had been misled. She contacted the “breeder,” who turned out to be a puppy mill operator. Joan insisted that her daughter’s purchase money be refunded and the breeder paid all of Redmen’s doctor bills.
Finally the time was right to begin training Redmen for therapy dog duty. Joan joined a local organization, Visiting Pet Partners. She learned, as I did today, that VPP participates in programs at Woodland Village Nursing Center (where I teach my Sunday School class), Driftwood and Lakeview Nursing Centers, Ocean Springs Nursing Center and Dixie White House Nursing Home.
Hospitals they attend are Memorial Hospital at Gulfport and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Biloxi. Currently plans are being made to begin a program at Garden Park Hospital.
Reading programs are enhanced in local libraries as children select a book of their own choice to read to a pair of Pet Partners. As the dogs are non-judgmental of a child’s reading speed, pronunciation and genre, they make a perfect support system for the young reader. Kiln Public Library and Long Beach Public Library currently participate, with more libraries coming in the future.
Joan’s next step toward working-dog status was to study and train for the Delta Society (now Pet Partners) test . This can be a self-study program or professional trainers may aid in the process. Training begins with basic obedience, but a therapy dog must also become used to noises. Extreme noises. One of the training aids is dropping pots and pans behind the trainee and he must not react in an unfriendly, violent or aggressive manner when startled. Dogs must become used to working around wheelchairs and walkers.
They must be tolerant of rough handling. Just as very young children sometimes handle pets less-than-gently, sometimes impaired adults lose their gentle touch, as well. This is especially true of stroke and nerve-damage patients.
It is essential that Pet Therapy dogs tolerate other pets. When at a public facility other therapy dogs may be present, or a patient’s own pet may be visiting simultaneously. Imagine the horror of a dog fight in a hospital!
Testing doesn’t end with dogs, either. Handlers have a written test and must pass before being certified.
Joan Webb is one of 18 members of Visiting Pet Partners. Some members have more than one therapy dog.
VPP member dogs wear their colors proudly. Royal Blue represents excellence of service and yellow depicts the sunshine brought into people’s lives by their visits.
Redmen is now between ten and eleven years of age. He and Joan were honored as Visiting Pet Partners of the year for 2009 and his certificate and the blue bone on his collar announce their selection proudly. He works four days each week in the locations described above.
Delta Society certifies dogs for assisted living as well as therapy dogs. Delta provides insurance for the dogs they certify. In return, immaculate records of visits must be maintained.
Seeing the joy our Pearl and Joan’s Redmen brought to Brenda certainly made our burden lighter.