For several years now, rescue dogs Tickles and Toodles have wagged their tails through the hallways of area medical buildings and educational facilities to help lift the spirits of hospital and nursing home patients, help young children learn to read, and help college students cope with the stress of finals week. Assisting these two four-legged canines on their goodwill endeavors is Urbana resident Nancy Sleeper, who got involved with therapy dogs in 2012 after retiring from her teaching position at Urbana City Schools.
“I have always wanted to work with animals,” Sleeper said. “When I retired from teaching, I wanted to get into pet therapy.”
Following a brief one-night stint as a foster owner to Tickles, Sleeper decided the schnauzer/terrier mix would be a perfect therapy pet. After completing all the necessary steps, Tickles became a registered therapy dog through Therapy Dogs Inc., now known as the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD). Based in Wyoming, the national organization for therapy dogs provides registration, support, and insurance for members who are involved in volunteer animal-assisted activities throughout the country, U.S. territories and Canada.
A year after rescuing Tickles and giving her a new lease on life, Sleeper welcomed another rescue dog into the mix – Toodles – who is also registered through ATD.
With Tickles and Toodles by her side, Sleeper takes part in pet-assisted therapy activities at area nursing homes, Urbana University, the Champaign County Library, Urbana City Schools and Springfield City Schools. In March, the three were approved to begin pet therapy visits at Mercy Memorial Hospital and the Springfield Regional Medical Center.
Paying it forward
Having spent the past four years watching people of all ages get enjoyment from a few minutes with Tickles and Toodles, Sleeper decided it was time to start sharing the joy she has experienced as a dog handler with others interested in becoming involved with pet-assisted therapy work.
Recently, Sleeper completed a program to become a tester/observer for ATD, which means she works locally with dog handlers and their dogs to help these potential pet-assisted therapy teams become registered through ATD.
“It is so rewarding to hear people say that something so simple as petting or holding my dog made their day,” Sleeper said. “I want to help more people be able to bring that joy to others with their furry best friend, which is why I became a tester/observer for ATD.”
In March, Sleeper wrapped up her first testing/observation sessions with the following pet-assisted therapy teams seeking registration with ATD: Terry Reeder and Sassy Belle of Bellefontaine, Nikki Collins and Lancelot of West Liberty, and Jenna Reichert and Tristan of Dayton.
To complete the two-part program, each team had to first pass a handling test in which Sleeper observed how well each dog follows basic commands and how well each owner controlled their dog.
After passing the handling portion of the program, handlers and dogs participated in three field observations, visiting patients in a medical facility to see how well they interact with patients. To complete this part of the program, the teams visited Vancrest of Urbana, Mercy McAuley Center and Heartland of Urbana.
Sleeper noted only two observations must been done in a medical facility, while one can be done in a school, library or pet store.
“It depends on what area the person wants to do pet therapy work,” she said. “The three teams I tested want to do nursing homes.”
To complete the registration process, every team that completes the testing/observation sessions then submits paperwork to ATD for final approval.
Local dog handlers interested in doing pet-assisted therapy work can contact Sleeper, currently the only ATD-approved tester/observer in Champaign and Logan counties, at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no cost for the testing portion of the ATD registration process.
To be eligible to join ATD and become a registered therapy dog, canines must be at least 1 year old and meet the following criteria: good around other dogs, listens to their handlers, allows strangers to touch them all over, doesn’t jump on people when interacting, walks on a leash without pulling, doesn’t mind strange noises and smells, calm for petting, not afraid of people walking unsteadily, current on all vaccines required by the local laws, pass a fecal test every 12 months, and be clean and well-groomed.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.