Little Miracles

March 26, 2012  

Honey and Captain, two rescued pit bulls, help create miracles each time they go out to work as therapy dogs

By Melissa Lipani

I am the proud mom of two registered therapy dogs who happen to be rescued pit bull terriers.

Honey is my first dog that I took through the process. After sailing through Canine Good Citizen classes and certification, and seeing her light up with people of all ages, we decided to pursue the process and try the test, which she passed on our first try. Honey began visiting at the UNI, which is the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, part of the University of Utah’s hospital system. Honey has worked with a group of teens during their group therapy sessions and really enjoyed it. The group is facilitated by Annie Perry, a Certified Recreation Therapist, who said, “When Honey arrives, the mood and the energy of the group immediately brightens. No matter what the teens are going through, Honey has a way of breaking down emotional walls and connecting with the patients in a way that no one else can. Oftentimes, patients struggle with basic social skills. When interacting with Honey, fears and inhibitions diminish, and the ability to have positive interactions increases dramatically.”

Captain is our most recent dog to obtain his certification through the Delta Society and our local affiliate, Therapy Animals of Utah, which by the way, currently boasts eight registered pit bull type dog teams among many other types of teams. We adopted Captain one year ago, and it was clear from the beginning that although he was very young, he had the “right stuff” to pursue his therapy certification. Generally, dogs who truly enjoy all people, can be calm, don’t startle easily or shy away from all kinds of touch, or display fearfulness around strange noises, situations or equipment, and who have a great relationship with their handler might do well as animal-assisted therapy dogs.

I was so nervous during Captain’s test because he is younger than many dogs who test and do therapy work, and he can be excited when he sees another dog (one Delta Society test item requires them to pass a “neutral” dog and show no more than casual interest – tough for any dog, let alone a youngster!). Captain did great on his test and passed with flying colors. I decided to have him take Honey’s spot at UNI because one hour was a little bit too long for Honey to stay focused … that is one important piece of doing therapy work: You have to know your dog and be their best advocate! Whether that is ensuring that clients are being appropriate, or recognizing when your dog is stressed, you are their voice, and we decided that Captain might be better suited for that setting, and boy were we right! Annie, the therapist once said early on, and I agree, “It’s like he was born for this!”

Week after week, I see teens come in shut down and in a lot of emotional turmoil. Captain seems to have a gift to hone into those kids, lean into them, lay at their feet (and often we see a real, relaxed smile on his face, like he knows he’s doing his important job!), and we see their stress dissipate, and they share their feelings or describe how their mood went from distressed to content with Captain at their feet. They take turns lying on the floor with him, hugging him and sharing contact and feelings with him that they may have been unable to do with people.

From time to time, there are teens who admit they are afraid of dogs, or of pit bulls, but it’s a great opportunity for Captain and I to show them that just like with people, it’s important to get to know each other as individuals; usually, by the end of group, those teens are on the floor with Captain, having agreed to give him a chance while they, in turn, confront their own feelings or fears on their own terms. Many times, they teach Captain a new skill or trick, and they get a feeling of success and confidence seeing Captain respond to them and learn from them.

Many people think that you have to have perfect dogs to get involved in doing animal-assisted therapy work or that their dogs must be perfectly trained, and while therapy dogs must have skills and aptitudes that make them good candidates for this type of work – such as a genuine desire to be around and interact with many different types of people – most importantly, you must be a great team together! Doing animal-assisted therapy is just as much about your relationship and teamwork with your dogs as it is about your dog’s training and skills with others. Captain is far from perfect; he’s what I call a “big banana.” He’s silly, young and very puppyish still, but he has an absolute love of people and a very stable temperament, and a genuine desire to work hard and work together with me. We still practice training daily, even if only for 10 minutes, but his aptitude for working with people was innate and led me to consider him for this work.

I like to share this with people because people think they have to have a perfect dog, but many dogs can excel at doing therapy work so long as they have the heart, drive and a handler who helps them succeed.

As the director of Therapy Animals of Utah, Gaelyn Derr tells us about doing therapy dog work, “For every miracle you see while doing animal-assisted therapy, there are hundreds happening that you don’t.”

You can follow Captain and Honey on Facebook.

Editor’s Note: Cappy is an extra in Sony Pictures’ “12 Dogs of Christmas II.” According to Melissa, “We were filming in the Masonic Temple downtown and there were hundreds of kids and about 30 dogs in the scene…loud music, choruses, hot lights, HUGE film cameras, lots of crew and spectators, and on stage the scene was the Christmas Pageant…the dogs are supposed to run across the stage and mingle with kids.

Cappy was in his GLORY, he ran around but then parked himself in the middle of a group of the kids and they mobbed him and he just soaked up all the love he could with his big ‘ol pit bull smile. They did the scene three times and of course, he did the same thing each time! They loved him.”

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8 Responses to “Little Miracles”
  1. WONDERFUL feel good story to start the week off!  Gorgeous Captain & Honey are

  2. DeniseLeBeau says:

    LOVE this story!!!

  3. pitbullsrock says:

    Thank you for sharing, fellow Delta Society member! You give me hope for my male dog who is 3. He is even more affectionate than my female and could probably be petted for all day. He loves it! I can relate to the time limit on energy. My Inca is good for about 40 minutes and then she lies down for a nap, so I sing and dance instead. Kidding!
    It’s nice to know Captain is not the perfect dog. Inca has a mischevious, naughty streak at times, but when she’s wearing her vest, she understands her role. My male dog  wants to play when he sees other dogs, but I have worked a lot with him and when I take him into stores, as long as it’s a quick meet and greet, he is fine. I’m going to do a trial run with our local evaluator for Pet Partners. Keep up the great work, Melissa. The pictures tell a thousand tales about your dogs and the good they are doing for humanity.

    • StubbyDog says:

       @pitbullsrock thank you for sharing, and keep up the good work too!

    • woofslc says:

       @pitbullsrock Thank you PBR!  It’s funny what you said about the vest, Captain is the same way, the minute he gets his bath and his special collar, vest, and bandanna are on, he’s in work mode and completely understands his job.  No “banana antics” as I call them (him not being perfect is actually pretty endearing, it usually involves eating shoe laces, doing spastic somersalts for people and dogs, and digging holes to China in my yard…nothing too serious ;-).  Good luck with your boy, you can do it!  It’s been such a fun process with him, he is silly and learning to focus him into his job has helped us both, and our bond together.  

  4. Reddogg63 says:

    Another wonderfully positive article!  I immediately open your emails as I thoroughly enjoy them!  Keep up the great work in showing our beloved pitbulls in the positive light they should be seen in!  I have 3 rescued pitbulls- and although they are not registered therapy pups– they are fabulous therapy for me!! 

    • StubbyDog says:

       @Reddogg63 Thank you so much for the kind words, the truth is we have absolutely no trouble finding these positive pit bull stories, it’s more the norm that the media would have you think. And we think all would agree that our dogs are great therapy for us!