Lots of species have become therapists – dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, llamas, rabbits, dolphins, even wolves. All of us could use a support critter: Animal-assisted therapy promotes positive emotions, improves mood, supports the development or expression of empathic skills, helps with social interaction and communication, boosts confidence, and eases anxiety for us bipeds.
Dog people know, and scientists have shown, that dogs respond to human tears and will naturally try to reassure a distressed person. Just try to be depressed around a puppy.
Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy, based in Morton Grove, trains volunteers and their dogs to serve as comfort animals. It’s the oldest and largest dog-therapy organization in the Chicago area, with a special focus on children. According to its website, “Therapy can help people find a focus other than their disability or disease and get a respite from the challenges of their daily lives.”
Evanston’s Gail Bush has been working with Rainbow since 2016. “I was at the Pooch Park and saw a woman wearing a Rainbow T-shirt,” she says. “I thought our family Goldendoodle, Daisy, had a calm and gentle temperament and that it would be a good way for her to be even better trained. I’ve been of service to my community in many diverse ways over many years and the thought of being able to serve and do so with my dog was appealing to me.” Gail consulted Daisy, and the two of them signed up.
At typical sessions, there are two dogs and handlers but sometimes as many as four. Daisy and Gail were the only therapists working at the recent event held at the Evanston Library’s Robert Crown Center Branch. Parents and children waited to see Daisy, approaching her one family at a time. They seemed a little anxious, a little intimidated. Anyone who has led a child to Santa’s lap can empathize.
“Often it’s emotional when fear and stress are released by the calm action of softly brushing a resting dog’s fur, or holding its paw in your hand,” Gail says. “There may be tears, joy, nervous laughter, whispers of overcoming sadness or tension. These emotions are displayed by both children and adults, and even the cool kids at the high schools. Many of the Rainbow dogs perform amazing tricks, but Daisy’s strengths lie in her lying still and steady.”
Daisy is one mellow dog, with great, soft eyes, and a palpable calm. Gail asked each child their name and age and shared Daisy’s age, breed, and a bit of back story. “I don’t say much, but with a few leading questions I let them set the tone of the moment,” she says. “If they are very quiet, shy, a little ill at ease, I might quietly ask them about themselves, and I talk about the kinds of things that Daisy likes to do. I ask them if they would like to brush her, play a game, or do a puzzle with Daisy. Sometimes they just want to be near her, and that’s fine, too.”
If someone has not touched a dog before, Gail offers a small, soft brush so that they can feel the curve of the dog before bravely touching with their hand. “It gives them a comfort level to become accustomed to the proximity of the dog,” says Gail. “In an earlier session today, a young woman bravely overcame her fear of dogs. She felt very proud of herself and said that she felt like crying. I was so pleased for her to have that feeling of accomplishment.”
Gail’s most memorable encounter happened in a session in a pre-school. “A lovely girl, maybe four or five years old, with both developmental and intellectual disabilities. She was in a very highly equipped wheelchair and her only form of communication was through a blinking process to a communication board. Daisy put her head on the wheelchair tray, the teacher’s aide and I helped her pet Daisy, and through blinking to the communication board she said that she was happy.” Good girl, Daisy!
Gail and Daisy have helped families in reading programs, at Misericordia, at cancer wellness centers, and have worked with high-schoolers de-stressing for finals and kids with profound disabilities. “There are lots of programs our teams take part in,” Gail says. “Reactions are so rewarding, to me, Daisy and the people we help.”
Reach out to Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy to donate or to learn how to train your dog to become an Animal Assisted Therapy Partner. Dogs should be at least 11 months old and familiar with basic obedience commands (sit, down, stay, etc.). Handlers must be 18 or older.
By Lyon H. Reedy