Visiting & Therapy Dogs

Visiting & Therapy Dogs

By Susan Spisak

Visiting and therapy dogs bring smiles to folks in a variety of venues such as nursing homes, retirement communities, libraries, senior centers, and hospitals. These dogs need to be vetted, up to date on immunizations, and well-mannered at a minimum. Some facilities may require that they’ve also passed the AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test. Certain institutions, such as hospitals, mandate that the canines are Certified Therapy Dogs, meaning that they’re trained, tested, certified, and then registered with a recognized organization. Regardless of the required credentials, these special canines can provide emotional support, reduce stress, and bring a ray of sunshine to others.
Avis Tolman, dog-lover and resident of Bartlett Woods Retirement Community in Rockland, understands the joy therapy and visiting dogs bring. For her 100th birthday bash on March 20th, she made an unusual request. She hoped that many area dogs would stop in for her big celebration.

Avis Tolman’s 100th birthday party. Photo Credit: Jack Knebel

Bartlett Woods Executive Director, Mary Eads, said twelve canines signed up for the event, and that was plenty. “We had all kinds of dogs, and they were all very well-behaved.” Avis’s family and friends came, and they had a fantastic cake. “She was on top of the moon, very appreciative,” said Mary. The therapy and visiting dogs worked their magic on Avis, “She was glowing from ear to ear the whole week.”   

Jaci Libby of Liberty said her gentle Golden/Lab, Rumi, enjoyed visiting several places in the past, bringing his brand of charm. They began visiting Jaci’s mother-in-law a decade ago in an assisted living facility and continued until she passed. After visiting her, Jaci and Rumi made their rounds to other patients’ rooms. When her mother-in-law was moved to another assisted living facility, Rumi went there regularly and was just as comfortable meeting people there.    

Jaci became aware of the powerful importance of not only her pet, but visiting and therapy dogs alike, when her mother-in-law transferred to an Alzheimer’s facility. Rumi, with his kind demeanor, was attentive and often licked patients’ hands. The nursing staff said it was miraculous; patients who rarely spoke would open up and tell Rumi stories of their past dogs. His presence unlocked memories from their days gone by with beloved pets.



Jaci said Rumi’s had no formal training but is an intelligent, insightful dog. The couple socialized him early on, including outings to Home Depot. He’s always current on his vetting, and Jaci’s been happy to share her boy with patients and staff too, “their jobs are so hard.”
For Bogan, an 8-year-old AKC English Lab, her therapy days are so near and dear to her heart—she does a happy dance when her working collar comes out. “She gets wildly excited,” said her mom and handler, Heather Redfield, because she knows she’ll soon be on her way.
She wasn’t always a companion pet for Heather. She came into her life by a stroke of luck four years ago. Looking for a new dog, Heather was directed to an area responsible Lab breeder. Previously a Mastiff gal, she realized she couldn’t boost that heavy breed into her vehicle any longer. The breeder felt that the calm, older Bogan, who was near retirement, would be a great match for her.

Bogan being company at chemotherapy.

She was told Bogan would be a terrific duck dog, but Heather wasn’t interested. Instead, they traveled the AKC CGC path, then went on to obtain a Therapy Dog International (TDI®) certified dog/team status. Heather collaborated with the volunteer coordinator at MaineHealth and got her sign off to begin their meaningful journey.

“I have been so lucky as to have been given a beautiful dog who is natural at making people feel good about themselves and is about what is happening to and around them. The best way for me to pay it forward is to hold on to her leash and let her do it. I reap the benefits by meeting wonderful people along the way,” shared Heather.
So once a week they head to Pen Bay Medical Center, part of MaineHealth, and greet those in the lobby. Then they make their way to various units including the labs, ICU, and infusion cancer care center. Throughout the facility, the staff, even doctors, take a few minutes with Bogan to refresh and recharge.
This team also spends time weekly with students at Camden Hills Regional High School during lunchtime. “The kids absolutely love it. They know when Bogan is in the building.” The librarian has them come by, especially during exams—it reduces the teens’ anxiety.  And Heather is proud of the fact that the school board asked the kids for their wish list—the top answer was “more dog.”
She acknowledged a good therapy dog can only visit for about 90 minutes each outing—their energy goes into those who they’re cheering. So, because this team are two besties, when they’re not visiting, they run errands or walk. To wrap up the busy days, Bogan naps near Heather while she manages her duties with the 501(c)3 New England Lab Rescue, NELR, ( as their Adoption Coordinator, matching applicants with a pet.
Heather had at least one applicant request a pup so he could be trained as a therapy dog. Cheerio, aka George, was adopted by an adolescent therapy counselor and is her office dog. “He is such a love and he’s taking well to training. He’s the most popular guy at the office. He enjoys lots of treats and sleeps on my couch all day, enjoying a rotating schedule of patients who love to snuggle him,” said his owner. (The counselor’s name is confidential due to the nature of her business and the ages of her clients.)  If you’re interested in finding a dog for therapy work, check out the many Maine shelters and rescues, including NELR.

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