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The Dog Who Changes Lives

Boo is an unlikely hero.  The 8-year-old black Lab mix with a white blaze on his chest moves stiffly.  He often bumps into things because he doesn’t see well.  And he’s kind of skinny.  His owner, dog trainer Lisa Edwards of Carmel, N.Y., discovered his talent by chance.  In a store one day, Boo dragged her over to two little girls who were shopping with their mom.  The kids squealed and grabbed his fur, but he just stood there, his tail thumping, with a peaceful expression on his face.  Most dogs need months of training to interact with strangers that way.  Edwards vowed to get Boo certified as a therapy dog.

There are currently more than 30,000 therapy dogs in the U.S.  Most work in hospitals, nursing homes, and physical-therapy programs to comfort patients undergoing stressful procedures or to help people disabled by accidents or strokes regain mobility.  Increasingly, “pet teams”—dogs  and their handlers—visit schools or volunteer in the court system to support victims of domestic violence as they prepare to testify.  Simply stroking or hugging a friendly pup can bring relief and healing.  

Sister Jean, a 94-year-old resident at Maryknoll, a care facility for nuns in Ossining, N.Y., spent her days clutching a stuffed dog and staring off into space.  No one could get through to her.  Then Boo began visiting.  Little by little, Sister Jean responded.  First she stopped bringing the stuffed toy to their sessions.  Then she uncurled her clenched hands to stroke the dog’s fur.  Recently, she spoke for the first time in years.  Her words?  “Hello, Boo.”

“When Boo puts his head in Sister Jean’s lap, she gets the most beautiful smile,” says Linda Thuesen, Maryknoll’s activity leader.  “He’s opened a little door inside her.”

Boo also volunteers at Mahopac Public Library’s Animal Reading Friends (ARF) program, in which kids read to therapy dog twice a month.  (Many who attend are dyslexic, stutter, or are painfully shy.)  The program is particularly meaningful to Edwards, who is dyslexic herself and once struggled with reading.

When Erich Schneider, now 11, started in ARF four years ago, he’d get so discouraged by his mistakes that he’d end up close to tears.  Boo knew just what to do.  He sniffed the boy’s shoes and tickled his ear with his whiskers and wet nose, making him giggle and dissolving the tension.  Thanks to Boo, Erich decided that reading was fun—and returned to the library month after month.  “Sometimes Boo would put his nose on the book, like he wanted to know what happened next,” Erich says.  “He helped me be a better reader.”

In December 2007, when Boo started working with the Austin Road School’s Stepping Stones class for the first- through third-graders with special needs, 8-year-old Christopher DiSilvio had severe AD/HD and “couldn’t sit still for five minutes,” his teacher Penny Wieser recalls.  Now he’ll sit for the entire hour of therapy.  He remains calmer and more focused even after the dog leaves.

“Boo has brought our Christopher’s caring side.  He’s blossomed socially and academically,” Weiser says.  In fact, his schoolwork has improved so much that Christopher now attends mainstream classes twice a week.  And his parents are so pleased with his progress that they’re planning to get him a dog of his own.

How can a 48-pound mutt do so much?  “Part of the magic is the unconditional bond between therapy dogs and the people they visit,” says Linda Buettner, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  “It doesn’t matter if you have disabilities, can’t read well, or are old and sick—the dog loves and comforts you anyway.”

In one of Buettner’s studies, a session with therapy dogs improved the moods and levels of engagement of a group of apathetic nursing-home residents.  “These people normally refused to do anything,” Buettner says.  “But during the visit, they came to life.”

For Lisa Edwards, “having Boo is such a special gift I can share with people.  Every time he works one of his little miracles, I feel so good.”  

by Lisa Collier Cool, Parade Magazine, September 6, 2009

Boo: Therapy Dog