Man’s best friend now certified as canine therapist, too

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Although no announcements were sent, gifts presented or cake baked to celebrate the occasion, Steve and Sue Millett of Hillsboro recently reveled in a family graduation.

The graduate was Bo, the Milletts’ 4-year old dog, who completed the requirements to earn his Canine Good Citizen accreditation. In doing so, Bo earned the designation of “Certified Therapy Dog.”

“He’ll have his own credentials with his picture on it,” Sue said.

A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, mental institutions, schools and stressful situations. Its primary job is to allow enjoyable physical contact with people who are unfamiliar with him.

Responding some four years ago to an advertisement in the local newspaper for free puppies, Steve and Sue were directed to the home of Pat and Paula Emerson near Marion Reservoir.

It seems the Emersons’ purebred yellow labrador retriever had mated with their neighbors’ dog, resulting in a litter of cute and loveable but otherwise valueless puppies.

For Sue, it was love at first sight.

“Bo had a big birth mark on his face, and they thought he’d be the last one to go,” she said. “But as soon as I saw him, I knew he was the one we wanted.”

Exhibiting a friendly yet gentle personality, Bo seemed like a perfect candidate for the therapy dog program.

“They advertise (the program) in the Wichita Eagle about every four to six months,” Steve said. “We’ve known about it for years, but we always thought it was kind of corny. This last time, we decided to do it just for giggles.”

“We’ve always said Bo would make a good therapy dog,” Sue said of the 104-pound pooch. “He’s just so gentle, he doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his body.”

Bo went through a 10-step program that included leash work, exercises, food temptations and the ability to respond to commands such as “sit” and “stay.”

“They’d also drop things behind him to see if it would scare him,” Sue said. “Then they pulled on his tail and ears to see how his temperament was.”

“He also had to maneuver through a lot of obstacles like wheelchairs and walkers,” Steve said. “They also took him away from me and into another room to see if he’d get nervous or if they could still handle him without me around.”

Oblivious to the requirements needed to pass his certification, Bo failed the leash test on his first attempt, Steve said.

“So we worked on it and came back three months later and he passed it,” he said. “But we had to retest the entire program, not just the leash portion.”

Each attempt cost the Milletts $10, plus a $35 fee for his credentials.

Even before Bo went to school, he had to pass a physical like any other beginning student. He was tested and vaccinated for such things as rabies, distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, para-influenza and parvo-virus.

“That cost us about $100,” Sue said.

Although therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds, they share one important attribute: a mild temperament. Many were of a similar breed.

“I saw more lab and lab mixes at the training than any other breed,” Steve said. “There were several lap dogs-like little Toto dogs. But three-fourths were labs.”

The evaluators paid careful attention to the attitude of each dog as it completed the course.

“They judge your dog from the time you walk into the front door,” Steve said. “Your dog can’t lunge at another or shy away because they’re watching and they evaluate everything.”

Although Bo won’t officially begin working until his certification papers arrive in six to eight weeks, neither Sue nor Steve have doubts about his effectiveness once those duties begin.

“Bo has always been good therapy for both of us,” said Sue, who works at the Hillsboro Animal Clinic. “Sometimes when I come home from a day at work sad-when we’ve had like three euthanasias in a row-I like to give Bo a big hug for awhile and it always makes me feel better.”

Even before his big-city training in Wichita, Bo already had earned a reputation in the neighborhood, Steve said.

“Between 5 and 7 (p.m.), we have about a half a dozen people wanting Bo to come out and play,” Steve said with a smile. “They just maul him because he’s like a big teddy bear-but he’s never anything but gentle.

Added Sue: “Whenever we’re outside with Bo, people just seem to congregate around us. People with kids or other dogs just love him because he’s so gentle with them.”

“You could ask most any kid in town and they’ll affiliate us with Bo instead of the other way around,” Steve added. “We’re known as Bo’s owners.”

Bo also possesses the ability to calm people’s fears of large animals, Sue said.

“We’ve had a lot of people use Bo as sort of a trainer to get their kids used to being around big dogs,” she said. “They even stick their hands in his mouth-he’s so gentle and knows how to handle kids.”

The couple clarified that Bo is a therapy dog and not a service dog. Service dogs directly assist humans and have a legal right to accompany their owners. Therapy dogs don’t provide direct assistance and have no legal right to travel everywhere.

“He’s more for emotional support,” Sue said. “He’s like a big pillow.”

The precise capacity in which Bo will perform isn’t clear yet.

“We hope to be able to use Bo at schools, for any needy or special-needs kids and things like that,” Steve said.

Nursing homes are another possibility, but, he said, “I really think he’s best with kids.”

Steve, a full-time employee for the City of Hillsboro, said he’s not sure yet how much time he can devote to Bo’s occupation.

” I don’t want to over-schedule,” Steve said. “Once we get into this, we’ll have to see what Bo likes and what I like.

“But I have to take Bo to a certain number of places each year to keep him certified,” he added. “He has to put in so many hours at designated places to keep his certification.”

How Bo and his clients will be matched isn’t known yet either.

“If people want to call us and request Bo, that’s fine,” Steve said. “If no one calls, I might contact places and see what we can get set up.”

“But I’ll be glad to travel in a 50- or 60-mile radius of Hillsboro.”

Who will derive the greatest satisfaction from Bo’s visits won’t be known until those visits begin, but Steve said he’s looking forward to introducing Bo and his therapeutic abilities to the Marion County populous.

“I get a kick out of watching kids interact with Bo,” he said. “He likes them as much as they like him.

“You can see it in Bo’s face and in the kids’ faces,” he added. “We just want to find out what area Bo is best in and what he really likes to do.”

“He’s a social dog,” Sue said. “We just hope we can use Bo to help other people.”

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