A Heeling Partners team could easily be the most popular visitors to Carbondale’s Heritage Park Care Center. On a sunny, Sunday afternoon, New Castle resident Jamie Roth and her 11-year-old, German short-haired pointer Cosmo visited residents and patients throughout the building. Most everyone stopped to admire Cosmo’s silky, chocolate-brown spotted coat and friendly demeanor.
“Would you like to pet Cosmo?” Roth asked a patient coming down the hall. Cosmo’s stubby tail began to wag as the resident smiled and reached down to pet the dog. “He reminds me of my dog at home,” the patient remarked.
Roth, who has been a Heeling Partners volunteer since 2008, said that’s a common response. Cosmo often sparks conversations about dogs long gone and helps calm patients recovering from surgery or a traumatic illness, she added. “Time with Cosmo makes them feel more at home.”
Heeling Partners volunteers and their canine companions are not out to save the world or cure diseases. Theirs is a quiet mission. “We provide healing moments,” said Laura Van Dyne, Heeling Partners co-founder, certified pet dog trainer, and owner of The Canine Consultant in Carbondale. “[Time with a dog] can help a patient forget about therapy or how much money they owe or cancer for a little while,” she added.
Van Dyne is also the Heeling Partners liaison with Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, which is where Heeling Partners got its start around 1999. She said the “main instigator” was Sandy Jaffrey, wife of Dr. Ira Jaffrey, who worked at the hospital. “[Dr. Jaffrey] had a dog that would come into his office and keep patients company as they were getting chemotherapy,” explained Van Dyne.
Sandy and others got together to figure out how to get more dogs to more patients. Van Dyne said it took two years to design a program for therapy dogs to visit Valley View and establish policies, procedures and legal agreements between Heeling Partners and the hospital. Finally, in 2003, Van Dyne and Duck, her Portuguese water dog, became the first Angels with Paws team to visit Valley View. “Duck was also the first dog to get the Planetree ‘Spirit of Caring’ award,” said Van Dyne.
Since then, Heeling Partners, which is certified by Training Dogs Inc. and Pet Partners, has set up doggie angel programs at area assisted living centers and Valley View’s Youth Recovery Center, and created the Paws to Read program for local school districts and libraries.
“[Paws to Read] helps kids who are learning to read or are struggling with reading,” explained Jamie Roth. Heeling Partners teams work with teachers or librarians so kids can spend time with a dog. Roth said the child picks out a book and simply reads it to the dog. “The theory is that it makes reading fun,” she said. “It’s less threatening because there’s no teacher correcting [the child].”
It’s a cute idea and the kids seem to like it, but does reading to Rover really work?
Yes, says a 2010 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine. According to the university’s website, results showed a 12 percent increase in reading fluency for third-graders attending public school and a 30 percent increase for home-schooled children.
“It’s all about the dog and the child,” said Roth.
But not just any dog gets to wear the signature purple, Heeling Partners kerchief. Cosmo is the perfect ambassador for the organization because he’s calm, friendly and doesn’t startle easily. “What’s not to like about Cosmo?” said Cora Wettlin, receptionist at Heritage Park Care Center. “He knows how to listen and is not overly pushy.”
Heeling Partners candidate canines — and handlers — must pass a series of tests, designed to measure certain skills. First, there’s the basic obedience class. Once that’s mastered, the teams are observed in pet-friendly places, like PetCo and public parks. “These tests determine how the dogs react with other people and dogs in startling situations,” explained Roth. “Because in a hospital or a place like Heritage Park, they’re going to be bumped and experience crutches, walkers and beeping.”
But what matters most is the dog’s inherent temperament. No matter how friendly and obedient Fido is, if he’s jumpy and excitable to begin with, he might not fit the bill. And the dog has to like being the object of a lot of attention. “[The dogs] have to tolerate being loved,” said Roth as she watched Cosmo patiently put up with pats and hugs from residents, staff and a reporter at Heritage Park.
Robert Baker, Heritage Park executive director, said he wants Heeling Partners at the center as much as possible. “It’s like night and day with the residents,” he said. “When [the dogs] come into the building, [the residents] just perk up.”
Heeling Partners currently has six active dog teams and is looking for more. Contact Sarah Hess at 970-309-1499 or visit www.heelingpartners.com to download an application.