Therapy dogs give kids courage to speak with Paws to Read

Reprinted from Kearney Hub

By RICK BROWN Hub Staff Writer | Posted: Monday, February 2, 2015 11:33 am

KEARNEY — Gretel knows exactly what to do when a child reads: Listen.

“It was fun reading to the dog,” Abby Racer said. “Sometimes, she wanted to move away but I think she was listening to me most of the time.”

Abby, 8, finished her storybook and petted Gretel during Paws to Read, a monthly event at Kearney Public Library that connects young readers with registered therapy animals. Abby attended Paws to Read with her father, Brent Racer of Kearney.

“We heard about this today and came to try it out,” Brent said. “It’s a neat program. I think the kids enjoyed it.”

Abby, a third-grader at Kenwood Elementary School, said she enjoys reading chapter books, especially The Rainbow Fairies book series.

Claudia Murr, Gretel’s owner, said she has owned six therapy dogs over the years. Five of them still live with her. Gretel and her brother, Hansel, were dumped on a country road.

“After I brought them home, I was out walking them and I wondered what I was going to do with two dogs,” Murr said. “What am I going to name them? Well, they are the fairies’ dogs, so it just hit me, Hansel and Gretel from the fairy tale because that’s their story, too.”

Murr said she has been grooming her dogs to work as therapy animals for 15 years.

“A number of years ago I worked with four children at Bryant School,” she said. “In the two years I worked with them, those boys improved their reading to the point where they could go ahead to the next grade.”

One child who had a speech impediment felt shy about reading in front of others.

“By the end of his school year, his teacher told me that he was holding this hand up in class and answering questions,” Murr said. “He made an excellent change and really grew.”

Murr retired from her job in manufacturing several years ago. Although she has no background in teaching, Murr understands how reading to an animal can make a change.

“I teach when I have my animals with me,” she said.

The Paws to Read event allows Murr to teach through example and experience by showing children something as simple as the feet of her dogs.

“I’ve had little kids who didn’t know that dogs had toenails,” she said. “So I show them their toenails and let them touch the pads of the dogs’ feet. Oh, they’re rough. Yes, just like the bottom of your shoe so you can run fast. So, there are teaching moments all the time.”

The Paws to Read program gives Murr a nice excuse to have five dogs running around the house because they’ve all been working, she said with a laugh.

Allowing children to read to a dog might sound silly, but Murr believes the unconditional love of a trained therapy dog gives a certain amount of warmth and confidence to struggling students. She also took her dogs to see patients at hospitals, cancer centers and visiting rooms as well as schools. The connection between dogs and humans exists in a way that defies words, Murr believes.

“Children can touch the dogs and feel the warmth,” Murr said. “My dogs are used to it. When it comes time to go, Gretel wants to head to another child.”

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Compassion education class teaches middle schoolers empathy, good citizenship

Reprinted from the Kearney Hub

By JOSH MOODY Hub Staff Writer | Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2015 12:20 pm

KEARNEY — With Schatzi — a 6-year-old golden retriever — in the center, Horizon Middle School students circled School Resource Officer Rob Tallion.

“Each of you are very powerful, in fact, each of you has enough power that you could change this world that we live in,” Tallion told about 20 seventh-graders seated on pillows and chairs.

The students are part of a compassion education class that Tallion teaches at HMS and Sunrise Middle School. The focuses of the class are character education, empathy, and preventing bullying and violence.

“We’re learning a lot about how we can help others and, pretty much, healing yourself as well,” seventh-grader Alyssa Kaminski, 13, said.

“Essentially, what we’re teaching is good citizenship,” Tallion said. “How to care about each other, care about themselves, not let themselves be hurt, not let other people be hurt.”

Maria Loya-Perez, 12, said that the class teaches helpful lessons that can be applied to everyday life in and out of school.

Tallion teaches students to think before they act or react to others and about how to cope with bullying.

“Think through and problem solve before you act,” Tallion tells students. “Get help, grieve and forgive, and give love.”

Monday, Tallion shared the story of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his role in changing the course of U.S. history.

Tallion encouraged students to follow King’s lead. “He is one person, and he literally changed the world,” Tallion told students.

Tallion emphasized the role that non-violent protest had in King’s campaign for equal rights for African-Americans. He explained the racism, violence, and adversity that King and his followers faced. Tallion noted, too, that King resisted violence even when threatened with it, a lesson that he said students can learn from. “Instead of fighting, you, too, can rise above it,” Tallion told the class.

As students listened, they took turns petting Schatzi, who obliged them by rolling onto his side so that his stomach could be rubbed.

Tallion said bringing an animal into class was one way to foster empathy. Schatzi, he said, is an example of the value of caring for others.

Neglected in a cage for the first 1½ years of his life, Schatzi now spends his time helping others.

Owner Jude Bennett said that Schatzi had gone ungroomed and unattended until he was rescued by a concerned mail carrier.

“I love having him in the class because he’s a prime example of the lesson that we’re trying to teach,” Tallion said. “Through the love and compassion that this dog has gotten, he’s grown to be this therapy dog that goes out and helps other people and is a worthy part of society.”

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Paws on Approach to Health

Reprinted from the Kearney Hub

By MARY JANE SKALA Hub Staff Writer | Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2014 1:00 am

KEARNEY — Coulee laid on Joyce Kusek’s bed at CHI Health Good Samaritan, closed her eyes and listened to Kusek’s soothing voice. With a soft smile, her hand stroking Coulee, Kusek told Coulee about the four dogs she has back home in Ashton.

Later that afternoon, Coulee curled up near the pillow of an elderly patient whose voice purred as she related stories about the dogs she had long ago.

Coulee, who belongs to Marla Bouton, is one of the 36 dogs in the Animal Assisted Therapy Program at Good Sam. Founded in 1993, it allows approved volunteers to bring their dogs and cats to visit patients. The 21-year program is thriving like a bouncy puppy.

“It used to be that bringing patients’ pets up to their rooms was a bit of an adventure. We had to sneak them in,” said Bouton, a co-owner of Hilltop Pet Clinic at 4507 First Ave. Place.

These stories and more are chronicled in a new book, “Silent Conversations.” Put together by hospital staff and volunteers and published by the Good Samaritan Hospital Foundation, it tells about the magic and smiles that animals freely bring to patients inside sterile hospital rooms.

The cover shows Penny, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, resting beside a sculpture in the hospital corridors. Penny belongs to Kim Williams, the program’s coordinator. On the back cover, Sissy, a German shepherd mix belonging to Gaylene and Jerry Arent, relaxes between two residents in rocking chairs at Prairie View Gardens at 1705 Prairie View Place.

The book, printed by Morris Publishing, also includes a story about Peanut, the program’s only cat, who passed away last month.

The stories of visits yank on human heartstrings.

On one of her first visits, Williams took Penny to visit a patient with end-stage complications of multiple sclerosis. “Penny sat on a towel on her bed, and the patient just stroked her. On the last day of her life, she wanted to see Penny, so I brought Penny up. She said, “Thank you.” She died in the next hour,” Williams said. “That opened my eyes. I told myself, ‘This has power.’”

There is Schatzi, a golden retriever owned by Jude and Gordon Bennett, who relieved the fears of a 3-year-old chemotherapy patient. There is Chunk, a Labrador retriever who did the same for two little girls receiving cancer treatment. He even allowed himself to be garbed in a mask and shoe covers to visit one of the girls in isolation.

“We have seen a child move from outright fear of a treatment room to the excitement of spending time with a new friend because of a gentle golden retriever,” wrote Kim Burr, a counselor at the Good Sam Cancer Center.

There’s the story about Ella Rose, an English cocker spaniel who visited a dying man. He reminded the man of the black cocker spaniel he and his wife had received as a wedding gift 51 years earlier. The man was tense with pain until Ella Rose curled up with him. Then he relaxed and became “seemingly pain free” for a brief time before passing away.

Stories leap off the pages of the book, including one about struggling pupils in area schools whose grades improved after regular visits with dogs. About patients who see the dogs and respond as if their own pets had come for a visit.

“It’s hard to heal the body if you don’t have a good attitude. Animal Assisted Therapy raises patients’ spirits so they’re not focused on their illness. It’s healing the mind so the body can follow,” Carolyn Schwindt, Chunk’s owner, wrote for the book.

The AATP has 36 animals and 32 handlers and is part of Therapy Dogs Inc., a national pet registry. Pet owners who want to volunteer their pets must contact the hospital’s Volunteer Services program. Next, the dog is evaluated by one of three people: Williams, Jude Bennett and Claudia Murr.

Evaluators check the pet’s ears, paws and tail (“things people might grab”) and take note of the relationship between the dog and the handler. They look for “controllable, reliable” behavior, Williams said. They consider how the pets will react with patients at the hospital, in nursing homes and beyond, including schools, libraries, college dorms and more.

“We look for signs of aggression, shyness and severe anxiety,” Williams said. “Is the dog interested in being there, or does the handler just want to be there? Are they calm?” Dogs must also walk calmly on a leash and not drag their owners down the hallway. “If the dog is aggressive or barks or growls, that animal won’t work,” she added

The second and third observations take place at least 24 hours apart so as not to overstimulate the dog. Several facilities, including Mother Hull Home and Homestead Assisted Living, serve as test sites where evaluators see how the animals do with patients.

Once accepted, pet owners attend a meeting where they learn about the facilities they will visit and tips on dealing with patients. They are then free to visit any facilities they choose, whenever it’s convenient. The only rules are that dogs must be properly vaccinated. Their claws must be clipped, and they have had to be bathed in the 24 hours preceding the visit.

“Petting a cat or dog lowers anxiety and blood pressure and reduces depression,” Bernie Goodner, the hospital’s certified therapeutic recreational specialist, said, “It doesn’t matter what age patients are. The pet can stimulate memories. Even people with Alzheimer’s disease talk about their dogs when the canines visit.”

Williams has seen comatose patients in the ICU stir when a dog arrives. Some patients there can’t speak, “but they try to smile,” she said.

Pets in the program spread their love far beyond health care facilities. They go to Camp Bear, a children’s grief therapy camp, to simply break the ice. “Often, children pet the dog and begin to talk about their loved one who died. We’re there as comfort,” Williams said.

At Horizon Middle School, a boy who was too shy to read aloud began to read to a visiting dog in a soft whisper. “The dog is not a judge, so that child had no fear of being corrected,” Williams said. His teacher wept.

Dogs visit Richard Young Behavioral Health Center. They visit the Kearney Public Library’s Paws to Read program once a month. They regularly visit six nursing homes: Mother Hull Home, Prairie View Gardens, St. Luke’s Good Samaritan Village, St. John’s Good Samaritan Center, Homestead Assisted Living and Cambridge Court Assisted Living. They stop in at Unity House.

Dogs have visited the Kearney Family YMCA, the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, UNK dorms and the Kearney Area Children’s Museum. They’ve marched in Kearney’s Veteran’s Day parade and the Fourth of July parade in Gibbon. They have worked with students at Horizon Middle School and first-graders at Zion Lutheran School, health fairs and many more.

“You go where you and your dog are the most comfortable,” Bouton said.

While the program soothes humans, its coordinators insist that dogs enjoy it, too. Pets who do not seem happy or who turn away from patients probably “are the wrong fit,” Williams said. “Most dogs enjoy the experience and then go home and take a nice, long nap. The next day they get up and do it all over again,” Bouton said. “We show up, pick a floor and just walk around. The nurses know who we are.”

On a recent Wednesday, about nine patients sat in a circle in the Good Sam’s Inpatient Rehabilitation unit as Goodner brought in three dogs, each wearing the red vest that the therapy dogs wear. Patients who had no pet allergies or restricting medical conditions were invited to let one of the dogs sit in their laps.

Paul Wice of Kearney, the retired news director at KGFW radio, eagerly allowed a dog to sit in his lap. He’d been hospitalized for six weeks due to a serious arm injury. The dog’s owner, Suz Wiester, works at Hilltop Pet Clinic and visits Good Sam on the third Wednesday of every month.

Across the room, Jerry Waldo of Republican City cuddled a dog. “I feel good when pets come in,” he said. Hospitalized for 55 days, he said he misses his two labs at his home in Republican City.

“This program brings a sense of normalcy,” Goodner said. “These people are missing their pets. Just for Jerry to have an animal in his lap, he’s reminded that there is life outside these walls.”

Carol Wahl, Good Sam’s vice president of patient care services, said, “We know that the presence of families, friends, and loved ones are vital to the healing process. Many research studies document the health benefits of a person/animal relationship, but we don’t need research to prove it to us. We know by the stories our patients share with us on a routine basis.”

Even hospital staff look forward to seeing a furry, four-legged animal come around the corner, she added. “I bet that every staff member knows each animal’s name.”

She praised the volunteers who bring animals to the hospital, calling them “amazing people who are very attuned to the differences that animal connections can make. They dedicate many hours to making a difference in people’s lives.”

“Every day we are blessed,” Goodner said. “We make people smile.”

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2009 Freedom Award

SHS Animal Assisted Programs has been nominated several times for the 2009 Freedom Award given out by the Kearney Hub. The nominiations were for the visits to the Kearney Public Library and nursing homes in the area. Visit the recent Kearney Hub article highlighting Paws to Read.

We would like to express our deep gratitude for Alaina and Amy for getting the program connected with the Library. Additionally for all the volunteers that make and keep connections with our nursing homes. This program would not be what it is without the dedication, initiative and drive of the volunteer workforce and special thanks and congratulations to those directly involved in the conception and ongoing work with these programs!


Welcome to the AAP Online website

Kearney Area Animal Assisted ProgramsWe are glad you stopped by to visit.  The Kearney Area website is currently undergoing a much needed “technology enhancement.”  Please feel free to browse around and see what is going on with the program.

This program is a group of volunteers from the Kearney, Nebraska area with dogs, cats and other animals registered with Therapy Dogs, Inc. Inc. and also Pet Partners. Our programs and visits include places for youth such as the public library and numerous daycare providers and schools. We also visit local hospitals, nursing homes, and other places where we are invited. Kearney Area Animal Assisted Programs also participates in local activities such as parades, camps and other community events. 

Animals in Action

Animal Assisted Therapy Program

Chunk - GirlsMedical professionals are becoming increasingly aware of the therapeutic and soothing effects animals have on patients. A growing number of clinical studies are proving that animals contribute to physical health by lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety levels and increasing survival rates for people with heart disease.

Good Samaritan Hospital (GSH) of Kearney, Nebraska has transformed healthcare delivery and positively affected family members, staff and the community through a program that complements traditional models. While other animal assisted therapy programs (AAP) have long been admired for the impact they have in the health care setting, what sets GSH AAP apart from others is the hospital’s commitment to support the program to provide services not only to the hospital but also to the our entire community.

Notes of Appreciation

Jude and therapy dog Schotzy

Jude and therapy dog Schotzy

Jude and Schatzi were recognized for their work at the Volunteer Recognition Luncheon by this note of appreciation received from a family member of a patient at Good Samaritan Hospital:

Animal Assisted Therapy – Jude and therapy dog Schotzy made a world of difference to my 3-year old son receiving chemotherapy for Leukemia. They often met us at the door and walked him to his room at the Cancer Center. He came to look forward to his visits here and seeing Schotzy. Schotzy really helped bring comfort and solitude to my son and brought a smile to his face. Thank you, thank you!

Neco & Brighton

Neco & Brighton

Neco & Brighton

In the fall of 2001 Larry, our then puppy Neco and I attended the Samoyed Nationals in Denver. That was when we first heard about pet therapy. We were so captivated by the numerous stories and upon returning to Kearney immediately started training to become certified. We have been involved in the pet therapy program for 10 years with Neco.

In the fall of 2002 Brighton joined our family. He and Neco have the same mother. Brighton started pet therapy at a very young age. We were going many places that wanted the little puppy to join us. As soon as possible Brighton was fully certified. Brighton has been in the program for 9 years.

In 2009 the four of us were selected to receive The Spirit of Planetree Therapy Animal Award. This is a nationwide organization that is participated in by Good Samaritan Hospital.

We have made visits to Bryant School, Meadowlark School, Northeast School, Zion School, Sunrise Middle School, Kearney Senior High School, YMCA preschool, private school in Lincoln, PEO organization, Relay for Life, various Senior Citizens Housing, Omaha Care Center, Public Library reading program for children, Camp Bear, Richard Young Hospital and Good Samaritan Hospital.

~ Larry and Helen Miller