A Kid’s Best Friend

Pet Therapy for Children

By Brian Jennings

Dogs don’t care what color you are or in what shape you are.

They don’t care how your hair looks or how you appear. They

don’t see your scars and blemishes. They go right through

appearances and see your mind and your heart.

      Jack Barron

Pet therapy

It was about five years ago when Jack Barron, now a resident of Bend, was Director of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Therapy Dog program, a position he held for more than a decade. His colleagues called him “the dog guy.” He was responsible for the training, evaluating, placement, and oversight of 68 active therapy animal teams serving locations such as the Mattel Children’s Hospital. The Saturday Evening Post highlighted his work, as did PBS.

Today, Barron teaches classes at Central Oregon Community College, and his pet therapy teams visit area locations like the Ronald McDonald House of Central Oregon, a home away from home for families who must travel long distances to Bend for medical care for their children.

Today, Barron continues his pet therapy work in the Bend area and was recently named to the National Board of Directors for Pet Partners, a non-profit organization that trains and supervises therapy teams used throughout Central Oregon.

Turning the clock back about five years, Barron recounts a life-changing experience that happened while he was still in Los Angeles at UCLA.  A 10-year old girl was suffering from bacterial meningitis and the outlook was not good. The girl had been in a coma for seven days. Enter a dog named Apollo who was part of a therapy team managed by Barron, brought in to sit next to the girl. Apollo sat with the girl for about twenty minutes, staring into the girl’s wide-open eyes before moving on to other patients. Much to everyone’s surprise and relief, the young girl came out of the coma shortly after Apollo’s visit.

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ~ Roger Caras

This quote by Roger Caras — former TV personality and wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist, has special meaning for those who dedicate themselves to pet therapy as a means of improving mental and physical health. Some may say that pet therapy isn’t anything new; after all, man and dog have been companions for thousands of years. Now, however, there is a greater awareness and understanding of how this special bond can be used to improve the lives of children.

Pet therapy trainer Donna Jarboe says Central Oregon’s Therapy Dog community includes dogs registered by Pet Partners, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and Therapy Dogs International. Jarboe volunteers much of her time to help train therapy teams and makes many visits to children needing pet therapy. She estimates there are between 75 and 100 teams regularly visiting clients throughout the area. These teams include 20 at St. Charles Medical Center, 15 teams at elementary and high schools, teams doing stress relief during finals week at COCC, and many others. Her days are filled with visits to such facilities as the Ronald McDonald House, Lunch & Learn school programs, and speaking engagements to groups such as Brownies and Girl Scouts. She and her black Labrador Jackson moved to Bend from Phoenix in 2013. While visiting Central Oregon before her move, she volunteered at St. Charles, and she now volunteers there on a regular basis.

In academic settings, Jarboe sees successes working with children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Recently, her dog Jackson was assigned to help an elementary school student with ADHD having trouble with reading. According to Jarboe, the boy’s home environment was not good; he hated reading and he didn’t want to be at school.

Jarboe and Jackson came to the school every week for 30 minutes of reading time with the second-grader. For the first month of the therapy, she describes the boy’s reaction as “hostile compliance.” His body posture and actions during the sessions told the story: “Am I done yet? Can I leave?” He was not at all happy.

The tide turned after one session when she jokingly mentioned that ‘Jackson doesn’t like cats.’ The next week the boy arrived with a book about cats, and began reading aloud. What the boy didn’t know was that Jackson was specifically trained to pretend-whimper every time she said the words “cry baby.”

As the boy read from the book, Donna would say “cry baby” at key points referencing cats, upon which Jackson would utter a whimpering sound, continuing throughout the book until everyone was laughing hysterically, including the second-grader. She then turned that into a conversation about how fun reading can be. The next week the boy was there with a book, ready to go. Jarboe says that from that point on he was a changed person. The boy’s teacher said that “a light came on” for the boy. With Jackson’s aid, an important connection with the boy broke down a major barrier.

Barron also works with very young stroke patients, including one teenage girl he says he will never forget. The patient’s mother asked Barron and his dog Joey to visit and gave them permission to put Joey up on the girl’s bed. Barron looked into the eyes of the young girl and noticed “no reaction to anything at all.” She had no use of her arms and legs, no ability to speak, and just stared blankly at all things around her. Then, somehow she began tracking Joey on her bed and following some of his movements. Barron and Joey spent about half an hour with the girl, not knowing if there would be any progress from the session. At the end of the session, when Barron told Joey to say goodbye to the girl, Joey poked his nose on the girl’s hand to let her know he was saying goodbye. Just as they pulled away from the patient, the mother held up the girl’s arm to say goodbye to them. That was the breakthrough moment. The girl began moving her fingers. The mother broke into tears telling Jack she hadn’t “moved anything for weeks.” The mother had been told she would never move her arms or legs or speak again. But according to Barron, “you could see her begin to try to utter some words and moving her fingers.” He says it was a very moving moment that he will never forget. The hospital staff later told Barron that the girl started making progress at that moment giving them hope she would recover some movement in her limbs.

How can one adequately explain a dog’s ability to break through these barriers to help children? According to Jarboe it’s due to a dog’s 100 percent unconditional acceptance of people. Barron agrees, adding that, although it’s been said many times and in many ways, it boils down to the simple love and acceptance that dogs inherently have for people.

“It doesn’t matter how you look at them or what you look like. Dogs don’t care what color you are or in what shape you are. They don’t care how your hair looks or how you appear. They don’t see your scars and blemishes. They go right through appearances and see your mind and your heart,” says Barron. He says there also seems to be a special bond with kids, especially pediatric patients.

Jarboe offers counseling and advice for pet owners who may want to become therapists. She says it’s important to understand that it requires a time commitment and training, but can be very rewarding. It begins with the relationship between the owner and the dog. There are many evaluations that score both the canine and the owner. Barron says if a dog has some obedience training, and there is a strong connection between the dog and the owner, and the owner has time, there can be no better form of volunteer work. Both he and Donna are willing to consult with interested parties. For parents seeking pet therapy for their children, they encourage them to discuss individual needs through the child’s schools or one of the many organizations that host pet therapists.

Check these sites for further information on Central Oregon’s pet therapy programs:

petpartners.org

therapydogs.com

tdi-dog.org

aginginplace.org/seniors-and-pets/

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