Sister Dorothy Bujold always had a dog while growing up on the coast of Canada, so much so that the dogs “were practically a member of the family.”

When a group of dogs and their owners visit Mount Saint Joseph Residence and Rehabilitation in Waterville, they take Bujold and other residents back in time. They also provide a source of joy to the patients and residents staying there.

“I think, you know, they can understand us,” said Bujold, who lives on one floor of a residence reserved for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyon. “The dog says many words without speaking.” Bujold smiled as she sat and petted a golden retriever named Caroline. The 7-year-old dog gently put her paws on Bujold’s lap so Bujold could reach her more easily.

Some people “cannot stand it” when the dogs leave, Bujold said. When two other sisters see the group of four women and three dogs move down the hallway toward a recreation room, they quickly take off after them with their walkers, eager to get more time to coo over the animals.

The popularity of pet and dog therapy programs is increasing, according to a number of sources, but it has been difficult for some programs to recruit enough volunteers to meet the rising demand.

The Kennebec Valley chapter of Love on a Leash, a nationwide nonprofit that provides a framework and certification for volunteers, has nine active members, four of whom are still in orientation and not officially certified. The chapter provides dog therapy to the residents at Mount Saint Joseph, but it also travels to places such as Colby College, Waterville Public Library, the Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation, and the Children’s Center in Augusta, according to Kate Ward, a founding chapter member who organizes the site visits.

Another three sites have asked the group to provide therapy dog visits, but Ward said they’ve had to put them on a waiting list.

“I think the only thing that’s challenging is it would be nice to have more people involved,” she said. “(…) We don’t have enough people to meet the visits that we have scheduled.”

It’s a challenge to get people to sign up and commit to volunteering, Ward said, and people often contact her but don’t follow through. However, once people do commit and go on the first visit, they don’t stop.

BOOTMOBILE DOG

One of the new members in the Kennebec Valley Love on a Leash chapter is Keith Smith, the Bootmobile marketing specialist for L.L. Bean.

Smith and his wife, Terri, both work for L.L. Bean and own a 5-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Millie, who has her own Instagram account. Millie already works as a brand ambassador and “Bootmobile marketing K-9” for the outdoors company, and Smith felt that therapy training was the logical next step so she could accompany him more often on tours around the state in the iconic Bootmobile.

Millie needs to make three more visits before she’s certified, Smith said in an email.

“It’s really powerful to see the instant connection and therapeutic value that these dogs bring to people,” he said.

A woman who lives in Boston has contacted Ward about joining the chapter or starting her own. According to the Love on a Leash website, Massachusetts doesn’t have a chapter, and Maine has only two — in the Kennebec Valley and Down East areas.

Even in San Diego, home of the Love on a Leash national headquarters, organizers run into the problem of a lack of volunteers.

“We get more requests for visits than we can accommodate,” said Debbie LaChusa, a board member of the nonprofit and a volunteer for the San Diego chapter, in an email. LaChusa’s chapter makes more than 100 visits each month, but is sometimes short of volunteers. “We also continue to get requests from new venues wanting visits, and we cannot always take them on because we simply do not have enough teams to service them.”

As pet therapy becomes well known and more widely accepted, LaChusa said, the demand is increasing. She couldn’t point to an exact reason for the slow rise in volunteers, but the required training and the certification process are potential barriers, she said.

While there has been research on the benefits of pet and dog therapy, there haven’t been any large studies on the rise in its popularity.

Deborah Linder, a research assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, said that while she doesn’t have data to point to, they “anecdotally and personally have seen an increase in requests over the past few years. Each group is a little different, but we currently have many more requests than we are able to fulfill, because we are a volunteer organization.”

Karen Anctil, another founding member of the Kennebec Valley group who helps Ward organize visits, agreed that there is a strong desire for the service in the central Maine area, but because most of the volunteers work full time, it’s difficult to coordinate additional visits.

“We would love to go on more visits and share (with) more people, but we just don’t have the people to do it,” she said.

THE THERAPEUTIC EFFECT

In 2011, Ward and Anctil started the local chapter of Love on a Leash, which had more than 2,000 members working in teams across the country in 2015.

Ward spends about 25 hours each month organizing visits for the group, in addition to her job as a nurse, because she enjoys it, she said.

“It’s such a great response you get when you go into the rooms and you go into the facilities,” she said. “Sometimes we’re the only visitors that people get for a week. It’s important for them, and it doesn’t take that much of my time.”

Ward decided to train her dog, Caroline, to provide therapy after Rita Pirrotta, a dog trainer who had been working with Caroline, suggested it.

As a nurse, Ward had seen the responses of people when dogs visited the hospital. The physical contact with an animal was often important, she said, especially for those who were sick and couldn’t see their own dogs anymore.

According to Linder, studies have shown both physical and mental health improvements from interacting with a therapy animal.

“From the physical health side, simply interacting with a therapy animal can improve blood pressure and reduce anxiety. One study even remarkably showed a decrease in pain perception among those visited by a therapy animal,” Linder said. “From a mental health perspective, studies support that interacting with therapy animals can improve mood, decrease depression and decrease loneliness.”

While more research is needed, she said, some studies show that there is a physical change in a person’s brain after they spend time with a therapy animal.

A 2005 study found cortisol, a stress hormone, decreased after just five minutes of interaction with a therapy dog, Linder said.

Other research has shown that interaction with animals helps seniors struggling with dementia by decreasing their agitation levels and increasing their sociability.

Jamie Wood, director of life enrichment at Mount Saint Joseph, said she often takes the dogs into the Alzheimer’s units.

“It’s really therapeutic for people with memory loss and dementia” because it brings back memories of when they had pets, Wood said. “It’s been very popular.”

HANDS-ON TRAINING

Not every dog can do this kind of work, but with enough practice, most can, said Pirrotta, a dog trainer and member of the Kennebec Valley Love on a Leash chapter.

Pirrotta was a registered nurse when she got a chocolate Labrador retriever with severe allergies. The veterinarian told her to put him down because the dog had to be fed by hand and was failing training classes, she said, but instead Pirrotta took online classes to become a dog trainer.

After one year and 10 weeks of hands-on training, Pirrotta started teaching at the Wag It Training Center in Lincolnville, as well as in Waterville.

She met Ward and Anctil at a class but moved to New Hampshire briefly. When Pirrotta came back, Ward and Anctil had started their Love on a Leash chapter and Pirrotta signed on to help.

To become an official member of the chapter, each dog has to be evaluated by a certified trainer, which is Pirrotta’s job.

She looks for a connection between the owner and the dog, how they both respond to other dogs and how the dog does with strangers. She also tests whether the owner can call the dog back, looking for any signs of anxiety, fear or aggression.

“You don’t have to have a perfect dog,” Pirrotta said. Sometimes the dog or owner might just need training in one area or advice.

Pirrotta has turned down only one dog. The dog was great with people, she said, but once she introduced it to her black Labrador retriever, Abby, it “reacted with force and wouldn’t let up.”

She told the owner that if the dog were socialized more and came back without aggression, she would evaluate it again.

After an evaluation, a dog and its owner have to go on 10 visits within one year with the group. Pirrotta looks for potential problems on each visit, such as how well the dog listens when the owner tells it to leave a pill dropped in a nursing home on the ground.

“We don’t expect them to be perfect, but we expect them to listen to us,” she said.

What’s most important, though, is whether the dog is happy in the situation.

For example, Pirrotta said Abby, 8, was bitten in the face as a young dog and doesn’t like meeting new dogs anymore. Pirrotta tends to bring her on visits with only Ward and Anctil, as all of their dogs get along well.

“What’s going to happen with a dog that’s not happy? They’re eventually not going to act right,” she said.

A DOG’S CALLING

When asked why she decided to get involved with pet therapy, Anctil said her 7-year-old golden retriever, Oliver, was the one who chose to do the work.

He passed through all the classes he could take, leaving Anctil wondering what to do next.

His first Love on a Leash visit was to Mount Saint Joseph when he was 3, she said. Oliver put his paws up on the bed in the first room they visited. The man on the bed had been asleep all day, Anctil said, and not showing any emotion.

When Oliver got close to him, he put his hand on the dog’s head and “his whole face relaxed.”

“The family started crying and snapping pictures,” Anctil said. “They said, ‘Thank you so much. This is the most response we’ve gotten all day.'”

That’s what spurred Anctil to believe this is Oliver’s calling.

“I thought, Ollie can give something to people, and that’s what he needs to do,” she said.

Therapy dogs are also used in local libraries for young children.

Samantha Cote, the youth services and technology librarian at Winslow Public Library, said reading to a dog can help children gain confidence.

“I had reading therapy dogs visit other libraries and thought it was a good program because I noticed that kids who are maybe not the strongest readers can get really nervous reading in front of people,” Cote said. “But if you’re reading to a dog, especially a calm one, you get the impression that they’re not judging you.

“You notice over time that (the children) get more confident.”

Love on a Leash visits Waterville Public Library, and Winslow works with a single volunteer and her black Lab, who were certified through another organization, Cote said.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.