BOSTON (CBS) — Christine Macdonald knows exactly what she’s looking for when she holds classes on therapy dog techniques.
“The dogs should be calm when they enter a room and approach a bed or wheelchair,” she says.
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Macdonald is volunteer coordinator with the Pets and People Foundation, which provides people therapy through pets. She often uses her dog, a standard poodle named Mercedes, as an example, when training prospective volunteers.
“When Mercedes greets you, she doesn’t jump on you. It’s four on the floor. You can pet her and touch her and she’s very relaxed about that,” she says.
Macdonald and Mercedes make weekly visits to patients at Emerson Hospital in Concord. Alissa Valasco Carr is a care manager at Emerson Hospital. “Everybody brightens up when Mercedes comes around. The staff has really embraced the idea of having pet therapy. Sometimes it’s really moving to see how some patients get relaxed, calm, happy. People who have been kind of miserable, when Mercedes comes and visits, it lightens their load for that short period of time, so it’s really nice,” Valasco Carr says.
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Ninety-six-year-old Jim Prendergast of Concord was delighted with Mercedes’ visit. “Look at her, lapping my hand. Oh you beautiful dog. I think we’ll keep you here,” Prendercast said, adding, “It breaks up your day, and the days can be dreary.”
Research has shown that petting an animal can lower stress and blood pressure.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dogs visited Boston. Luther, Addie, Maggie, Isiah and Ruthie are all golden retrievers. I found all of them flopped down on their sides, waiting for attention. Rich Martin with the Comfort Dog ministries explained: “I call it their ‘A’ position when greeting people,” he said. “They don’t show an anxious bone in their bodies. They’re approachable. Kids love it when they’re down on the ground. They get down with them . They lay on them and pet them for hours.”
Catherine O’Reilly of Somerville was near the finish line at the time of the marathon bombings and was happy to see the comfort dogs. “We just knew how healing it is to pet a dog and hug a dog,” she said.”A tail tucked means nervous — your puppy is not having so much fun.”
Several puppy owners were listening intently on a recent Saturday afternoon as the instructor explained puppy behavior during an MSPCA Play and Learn training session in Jamaica Plain. Kevin Hannon and Deirdre O’Neil had signed up with their first puppy, Kira. ” She’s good. She runs at the right moment,” O’Neil says.
“Plays well with others,” adds Hannon.
“She’s not a fighter, she’s a flighter,” O’Neil says, laughing.
Terri Bright is director of behavior services at the MSPCA. “Whether you think you’re training your dog or not, you come home and your dog jumps on you and you say ‘hey buddy, how are you doing,’ then you are training your dog to jump on you,” says Bright.
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She also says the science of behavior is as true as gravity: “It’s no different than chemistry or other sciences. The principles of behavior, reinforcement, punishment, extinction, stimulus control, these are the things that cause organisms to behave, whether you’re a dog, a cat or a person. They are all governed by the rules of behavior.”
Kelly Fitzsimmons, who lives in Harvard, puts those rules to the test on several fronts every day. She has a dog, a horse, goats, chickens and a goldfish named Spike. She also has four children and says the animals teach her kids responsibility. “It’s a simplified way of living in many ways,” explains Fitzsimmons. “They appreciate where eggs come from. They appreciate taking care of animals and knowing what goes into it. It’s just different from playing a video game.”
Troy Caisy is head trainer for the Boston Police K-9 Academy. He trains, on average, 20 to 25 new K-9 teams a year, including explosive detection, patrol and narcotics. He also purchases the K-9 dogs from vendors. “For me it’s very easy. I can usually pick out a dog within the first five minutes,” he explains. “A lot of it is just the dog’s presence. It’s the attitude in the dog when he walks into a room in a strange environment. We also look for a dog that’s very free, very sociable and very energetic. We look for a dog that wants to engage. If the dog will bring a toy back and interact with us, we can pretty much train him to do anything,” Caisy says.
The rewards of pet ownership came as a great surprise to freelance writer Monica Collins. “I was one of these people who lived in a condo and was the anti-dog person. Get those dogs corralled, keep them out of the flowers. I mean, get your dog away from me,” she says.
But 15 years ago, Collins got a puppy, a West Highland white terrier and named him Shorty. “This little puppy really gave me an incentive to be a better person,” says Collins. “There’s just something now, something inside that’s hard to describe. When I see an animal of any sort, I’m much more attuned to that. I’m much more attuned to my environment, and nature, than before I had a dog, ” she says.
Shorty also got Collins writing about dogs, and her column “Ask Dog Lady” was born.
Collins is quick to say she is not an expert on dog behavior or health, but K-9 trainer Caisy is and he has three words of advice for all owners. “Praise your dog. That’s all the dogs want to work for, is a little bit of praise and a little bit of attention. A lot of people don’t pay enough attention to their dogs. You’ve been at work interacting with friends, family, whatever you’ve been doing all day long, and that dog has been sitting at the door , building and building all day until you come home, and you come home and you’re tired, and he’s ready to go. Just spend some time with your dogs,” says Caisy.