We all know of the dogs who work actively to serve us -- those who help in law enforcement, those who find victims after a disaster, or those who assist people with disabilities. These animals perform an invaluable service, without a doubt.
A less active and perhaps less lauded form of service is done by other dogs, often trained and handled by dedicated volunteers. These dogs do their duty by sitting quietly, by listening, by offering undivided attention and unconditional love to people who need it most -- those isolated by illness or struggling with tragedy.
They are therapy dogs, and no one who has ever watched one work can doubt the difference they make.
"I got started because I had long wanted to do something for people in nursing homes," says Kathy Diamond Davis, the author of "Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others" (Dogwise, $20) and a therapy dog handler of almost 20 years experience.
"I had met a neighbor couple when I was out training my dog, and he was doing doctor-ordered walking," she says. "His wife came to my door one day and told me he had passed away, and she wanted me to know that the last thing he had spoken of before he died was my little dog, Angel. I felt God tapping me on the shoulder, and got moving to our first therapy dog visit."
Over the years Davis has trained and volunteered with five therapy dogs and has had many other such experiences. The dogs, she says, touch people on a level that opens them up and can then give others the chance to help them more.
"The benefits therapy dogs provide are emotional," she says. "When the dog gets someone to get up out of bed, get out of their room, get dressed and participate in social life in the facility, the benefits can truly cascade from there."
Of course, you can't wake up one morning, snap a leash on your dog and head for the nearest hospital or convalescent facility. Therapy dog groups have worked hard for years to establish the value of canine support, and they're careful to maintain that trust and good will. While Davis believes many dogs can do some sort of therapy work, she says it's important that the established standards be met and maintained.
"Therapy dog handlers require control skills with their dogs as well as extensive social skills," she says. "For a typical, well-suited team, weekly classes for five or six months combined with daily practice of the class homework in as many safe settings as possible is a great start."
After that, says Davis, the team needs to be tested and certified to be as sure as possible that the dog and handler are ready to serve.
"The dog must be steady around other dogs, all kinds of people, noises, sights, smells -- anything can and does happen on a therapy dog visit," she says. "Because we all love our own dogs and can't be totally objective, I believe the suitability of the handler and dog team for therapy dog work needs to be determined by testing."
The long-term commitment of time, energy and emotion tends to wash out all but the most committed volunteers. But for those who stick with it, the benefits are immense.
"The work is challenging to your mental and physical skills and therefore constantly motivates you to improve. It's top-quality time with your dog that also connects you with your community," says Davis. "I am endlessly fascinated by living and working with dogs. And I care about humans. That made therapy dog work natural for me."
Can your dog help?
Some long-established nonprofit organizations offer resources on therapy dogs:
-- Delta Society (deltasociety.org, (425) 226-7357). Based in Bellevue, Wash., the Delta Society works to unite people with disabilities and patients in health-care facilities with professionally trained service animals.
-- Therapy Dogs International (www.tdi-dog.org, (973) 252-9800). Based in Flanders, N.J., TDI works to regulate, test and register therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers.
-- Canine Companions for Independence (www.caninecompanions.org, (707) 577-1700). Perhaps better known for training dogs to work with people who use wheelchairs or with the hearing-impaired, the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based CCI also trains therapy dogs for placement in health-care facilities and schools.
The full interview with Kathy Diamond Davis, author of "Therapy Dogs," is available on the Pet Connection Web log at http://spadafori.typepad.com/woof/2005/08/therapy_dogs.html. -- G.S.
Vegetarian diet not for felines
Q: I found an abandoned kitten in a parking lot, and I've decided to keep her. After a couple of iffy weeks, the vet says she's in good health. But I have a problem with my vet's recommendations on how to feed this kitten.
I'm a vegan. I don't eat meat or buy products made from animals because I can't support the suffering that the animals go through.
My vet says I can't avoid meat when feeding the kitten, and she's very adamant on this point. I've read on the Internet that I can add some supplements to a meatless diet, and the kitten will be OK. What do you think? -- C.N., via e-mail
A: I agree with your veterinarian. Your cat needs protein from meat.
There's some wiggle room with canine nutritional demands, and many people are able to maintain their dogs on meatless diets. But cats are "obligate carnivores," meaning they need meat. If you look at animal-rights discussion sites on the Internet, you'll find this is a well-debated topic, with many vegan activists admitting that it isn't right to deny a true carnivore access to meat.
I respect the decisions you've made for own life, but if you're going to care for a true carnivore like a cat, you're going to need follow your veterinarian's advice on this matter. If you want a pet that eats no meat by design, adopt an herbivore, such as a rabbit.
Ice a cool treat
Q: Is it OK to let our dog eat ice? She begs for it out of our glasses on these hot days. -- S.T., via e-mail
A: I get this question every summer, and the news is good for dogs: Indulge them.
Ice is a cool treat on a hot day, and some dogs really like it. For a change of pace, make your dog some "pupsicles" by freezing broth in ice-cube trays (I prefer the low-salt, low-fat variety). The treat is best offered outside, for obvious reasons.
Ice is a great way to keep your dog's water cool on a hot day, too. Create ice blocks by freezing water in margarine tubs, and float the frozen chunks in your dog's water dish.
No white on this cat
Q: Will you make a correction? Your answer to the question about the calico and tortoiseshell was incorrect. A calico is an orange, black and white cat. The tortoiseshell is only black and orange with no white.
Also while we're on the subject of coat patterns, a striped cat is not a "tiger" -- it is a "tabby." So many idiots call these cats a "tiger cat." -- A.B., via e-mail
A: I wouldn't go so far as to call them "idiots," but I get your point and am happy to pass along the clarification.
Along the same lines, I do confess to biting my tongue when people are telling me about their "golden" Labs. There are golden retrievers and there are yellow Labradors, but no such thing as a "golden" Labrador. Labradors come in three colors: black, yellow and chocolate. I guess when you're familiar with the proper terms, it's annoying to hear the wrong ones.
In the end, though, it only matters that the animal is loved and well-cared for.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Flies are more than a nuisance
As the summer winds down, the flies get ugly. Fly strike -- typically bites on the tips of the ears -- can drive a dog crazy and can cause problems that include the loss of the ear tips.
In the most critical cases, typically involving outdoor pets that don't get much attention (such as hutch-bound rabbits), flies can lay eggs in wounds or around tender areas, and the resulting maggot infestation can be so severe that an animal can die.
Aggressive measures are needed to fight the problems caused by flies. Keep animals and their housing areas clean, remove waste and uneaten food promptly, and check daily for signs of fly bites or maggot infestations. Keep fresh fly traps on hand, and spray for flies using products safe for use around animals. Longhaired animals are at higher risk because their fur may retain urine or feces, which attracts flies. These animals may need to have their fur kept clipped short for sanitary reasons.
When an animal shows signs of fly strike, get help from your veterinarian right away. Both oral and topical antibiotics may be needed, along with topical products designed for the animals to keep flies off. Whatever you do, don't ignore the problem: Fly strike makes animals miserable, even in its mildest forms.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Share your tales of pets, traveling
Traveling with pets has never been more popular. With choices from "ruffing it" at campgrounds to getting pampered at luxury resort hotels, pets and the people who love them are increasingly finding the light left on and the welcome mat left out.
Did you take your pet on your summer vacation? We want to hear about it, and see your vacation pictures. Did you head for the mountains or the beach? Did your pet influence your travel plans? Did you run into any problems? What are your best tips for safe and easy traveling? What's your best pet-travel experience?
Send your stories and images (jpegs only, please) to email@example.com, and we'll share them in upcoming Pet Connections.
Handsome pointer no couch potato
The low-profile German shorthaired pointer was thrust into the limelight last February when the dazzling Carlee (Ch. Kan-Point's VJK Autumn Roses) went best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
The prestigious win sparked so much interest in this smart, friendly sporting dog that the president of the German Shorthaired Pointer Club of America put a cautionary notice on the club's Web site (www.gspca.org) warning prospective owners that these dogs need a tremendous amount of exercise, training and attention.
In addition to their boundless energy, German shorthaired pointers also have lively and inquisitive minds, and can get into a lot of trouble if not given sufficient acceptable outlets for their intelligence and enthusiasm, such as work in obedience, agility or hunting.
Because of their people-loving nature, they may not be happy if relegated to a back yard or a kennel run. This isn't to say lots of time spent outdoors won't suit them very well; it will. They are ideal for owners who love hiking or other outdoor activity, and they'll happily retrieve both on land or in water.
But much as they love the outdoors, German shorthaired pointers need company and activity while they're out there, or they're going to take up digging as a hobby. Or barking. Or both. After all, these dogs are known for their versatility.
Weighing in between 40 and 75 pounds, with a short, easy-to-care-for coat that comes in different shades and patterns of brown, German shorthaired pointers are typically healthy and long-lived, and they require little more than the basics in the way of grooming: regular nail trimming, a quick daily brushing to remove dead hair, and the occasional bath.
The breed is generally good with children, and these dogs make excellent family pets as long as their needs for companionship, mental stimulation and exercise are met. -- Christie Keith, pethobbyist.com
BY THE NUMBERS
Spending on reptiles
Image: lizard (no credit)
Optional caption: The annual reported spending on a lizard averages $151.
Although some reptilian or amphibian pets can be expensive to acquire and set up, they're generally not that expensive to maintain. Costs per year as reported in 2004, by variety of pet:
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
PETS ON THE WEB
Insider's view of emergency medicine
The author of the Pet Peeves Web log (http://spaces.msn.com/members/petpeeves6003) is an Ohio veterinarian who works in an emergency clinic. A self-described "E.R. geek" (right down to the vanity plates on her car), she describes the hard work, disappointments and triumphs of a job in which, when you meet an animal, there's usually a life on the line.
There's a lot of good information here, such as warnings against giving acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) to animals, especially cats. Typically, such warnings come after a patient dies. But mixed in among the sad losses are such feel-good postings as the pictures of the animals who make it, sometimes against all odds, and come back to the clinic with their grateful owners for a visit.
The Web log has a loyal following and no wonder: The stories are so compelling you just can't stop checking for the latest.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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