by Cori Hilsgen – email@example.com
Eight central Minnesota therapy dogs recently visited with some College of St. Benedict students before final exams. The dogs visited first-year students to help calm them before testing. Some upper-class students also came through to visit.
One of the therapy dogs was Ella, a golden retriever owned by Marlene Dingmann. Dingmann said students told her the dogs helped relax them and that they missed their own dogs at home and couldn’t wait to see them again.
Another of the eight was Secret, a springer spaniel owned by J.P. Martin, who started the animal-assisted therapy program at the St. Cloud Hospital in 1996. He is an AAT dog trainer and evaluator with more than 25 years of experience in obedience training with all types of dogs.
Therapy dogs currently visit most areas of the St. Cloud Hospital, including oncology, pediatrics, adult intensive care, family birthing, behavioral health, neurology/spine, telemetry, bone and joint, medical/surgical and also the Coborn Cancer Center at the CentraCare Health Plaza.
The six other dogs included Nahlah, a great Dane owned by Joyce Salzer; Abby, a basset-spaniel cross owned by Priscilla Gray; Spencer, a shih tzu owned by Deb Renschler; Bailey, a poodle-maltese cross owned by Deb Haus; Jazz, a poodle owned by Janelle Kraemer; and Spot, a chihuahua owned by Dorothy Bernardy.
During Dingmann’s experience of working with the therapy dogs, she said she has watched the dogs relieve stress in both patients and staff.
“They can also help with pain management,” Dingmann said. “The dogs can calm children who are upset about medical procedures and help patients work in physical therapy. The dogs’ keen sense of smell can also detect medical conditions such as bladder infections. Some dogs, like Nahlah, can work well with autistic children.”
Therapy dogs at the St. Cloud Hospital must be at least 1 year old and have a calm temperament, be gentle, obedient and have a positive social manner and disposition that works well with patients of all ages. Dingmann and Salzer said they feel a dog who is good with strangers and willing to please their handler is best suited for therapy work.
With AAT, a certified animal handler and animal assists in the treatment of patients to achieve specific health-care goals. Therapy is performed under the direction of a health-care provider to help promote social, physical, emotional and/or mental healing.
Dingmann and Gray have been working with their therapy dogs for six years, Bernardy for three years and Haus and Kraemer for two years. Salzer and Renschler are presently in the process of completing their training. Dingmann also visits the Assumption Nursing Home in Cold Spring once a week, which she has been doing for the past nine years.
To become a therapy-assist animal, dogs should complete two courses of basic obedience. The handler and the dog then complete 21 weeks of class with Martin. Next, the dogs take a national test through Pet Partners’ Therapy Animal Program, where they are evaluated as a team. The test usually takes 30-45 minutes to complete. The final step is 30 hours of one-on-one training with Martin at the hospital.
The Pet Partners’ program screens and trains volunteers and their pets for visiting animal programs in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and other facilities.
The program was started in 1990 to ensure people and animals were well-prepared to participate in animal-assisted activity and animal-assisted therapy programs. It’s the only national registry that requires volunteer screening and training of animal-handler teams. The national network links volunteers with facilities in their communities.
The therapy dogs need to be re-certified with Pet Partners every two years to ensure the dog is still able to handle the stress of working in the hospital environment. The Pet Partner certification provides owners with insurance in case the dogs would happen to do something such as accidentally pull out an intravenous tube.
Dingmann said a nursing professor, Carie Braun from CSB, did a 500-case study on how the dogs can help with pain management. She published her results in a nursing journal.
The eight dog handlers come from varied occupations. Martin is a retired chef. Dingmann graduated from CSB and has taught elementary music in the Sartell-St. Stephen school district for the past 23 years. Salzer has worked as a veterinary technician, owns a grooming shop and raises shih tzus and yorkies; she is also equine-therapy certified. Gray is a retired teacher. Renschler is a daycare provider, Haus works at GeoCom, Kraemer owns J and J Homes in Baxter, and Bernardy is an activity director.
AAT is a volunteer position and is a free service to patients and staff at the St. Cloud Hospital. Upcoming events outside of the St. Cloud Hospital include the dogs doing presentations Jan. 21 for a Girl Scout troop in St. Cloud and also on Feb. 15 at the Cold Spring Senior Center. The dog handlers also often speak with St. Cloud State University nursing students about the value of therapy-dog work. Anyone who has questions about animal-assisted therapy can contact Martin at 320-333-5817, Dingmann at 320-248-0544 or Salzer at 320-333-7841.
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people's stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.