Therapy dog Belle waits while her human, Nancy Hohmann, far left, introduces her to children at the Norway Memorial Library last week. Pictured from left are Hohmann, Stella Twitchell, 6, Lucia Twitchell, 2, Laura Twitchell and Toby Twitchell, 8, all of Oxford, and Yagmur Moats, 4, Grayson Moats, 2, and Elizabeth Ozcan, all of Norway, and Hilary Ware of Norway. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

NORWAY — After observing how much pleasure a visiting therapy dog brought to her mother during her final days, retired school teacher Nancy Hohmann decided doing the same would be a good way to pay it forward: by providing that joy to others. Ten years later, Hohmann and her therapy dog Belle are regulars at schools and nursing homes around Oxford Hills.

“I got Belle as a puppy,” Hohmann said on a recent Thursday afternoon outside the Norway Memorial Library, ahead of a reading to children about therapy animals and animal heroes.

“I wanted a dog with the right temperament. As a puppy she was outgoing but not aggressive, fairly self-confident but not always in your face. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to get, but she has exceeded every expectation I had.

“She is three-quarters golden retriever and one-quarter Irish setter craziness, which makes her all the more interesting,” Hohmann said.

Hohmann was well equipped to select the perfect dog for her vision for helping others. She has worked with therapy horses for more than 15 years and has published a book about animal communication with a previous pet dog, Daisy, as her “co-author.”

Hohmann selected Belle from a friend’s dog’s litter and took her home at nine weeks. She began taking her to a private puppy class to get started and then switched to regular training classes among other dogs.

“There was a ‘good citizen class 101,’ the first one she passed,” Hohmann said. “We went to so many classes, for about a year and a half. She is registered with Therapy Dogs International and she had to pass 14 tests to achieve it.

“She was about 20 months when she passed all of her tests. We took that summer to practice. As a retired teacher, I wanted to use her in schools,” Hohmann said.

The pair also visit people in the hospital or in nursing homes. Belle goes along when Hohmann plays ukulele with a group at assisted living homes, visiting with residents after each musical performance.

With schools out for much of the last year and medical facilities in visitor lockdowns, Hohmann and Belle did not get out much. But they have had other opportunities to provide support to individuals. Recently, the two did some one-on-one work with a young boy who is terrified of dogs.

“The child would not get out of the car if he knew there would be a dog,” Hohmann said. “He has come to my house twice. At the end of the second visit he was able to put his hand on Belle. That was enormous for him. She was able to read him and did not go near him.”

Hohmann recalled a school visit in New Hampshire, where Belle made different decisions about engaging children.

“I walked into the class room and I knew, I knew she had somebody picked out,” she said. “I dropped the leash and she approached a little boy. So I knelt down with her and asked him how he was doing, and the teacher gave me a big look of approval. By the time we left, word had got around that Belle had chosen to work with that kid and one teacher approached me in tears.”

Belle had chosen to engage with the student who needed her most, on his terms.

“‘She came to see me,’ he said. ‘Yes, she did.’ ‘She wants to stay with me,’ he said. ‘She does,’ I answered him,” Hohmann said. “She just put her head in his lap and stayed with him for a half hour.

“How did she know? I’ve seen that happen before. Usually she’ll go right to a child. But another time we were approaching a teacher and a student and she went right to the adult, who leaned over and put her head against Belle’s and rubbed her,” Hohmann said. “When she stood up she had tears in her eyes and she said, ‘you have no idea how much I needed that.’ And I agreed that I did not, but the dog sure knew.”

Hohmann advises that whether choosing a family pet or one to volunteer with, it is important to really learn about the dog’s personality and know how it’s been socialized as a puppy. She knew that Belle had been handled and socialized with both people and other dogs from day one.

“I’m not an expert at choosing a dog, but I got it right with this one,” she said. “People should be sure to check around for trainers and classes to attend. I was fortunate to take all kinds of classes to prepare Belle for therapy dog testing.

“It’s really important to get that training so you know what you’re doing with the dog,” Hohmann said. “[Training] is for the handler and the dog. You don’t want to send them away because then if the dog starts a bad behavior, how do you deal with that? It was learning experience for both of us. A wonderful learning experience.”

Among the many tests Belle had to pass to qualify as a therapy dog was walking past a pile of meat on the floor, which she did after lots of practice. When she was able to do it without pulling at her leash Hohmann knew she was ready.

“And let me tell you that ‘leave it’ command came in handy when she was running towards a porcupine,” Hohmann said laughing. “I screamed ‘leave it!’ And she did.”

Belle’s hardest task was learning to walk past other dogs.

“She always wanted to just play with them,” Hohmann said. “One friend with a dog in particular, we spent a lot of time just walking back and forth toward each other. We also had to practice Belle approaching new things, like a person in a wheelchair or on crutches, different scenarios. She had to learn not to react when a stack of books dropped on the floor.”

Before COVID, Belle and Hohmann used to visit schools and other sites at least twice a week. Hohmann recently moved from Norway to Falmouth, a town that does not allow dogs in its schools. So the two will make lots of trips back to Oxford Hills once school resumes in September.

Yagmur Moats waits for her turn to meet Belle the therapy dog last week in Norway. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

In addition to Belle giving support to members of her audience, Hohmann educates them about dogs.

“I tell them that they don’t just grab onto a dog; that’s not what to do,” she said. “That’s what people want to do. But if I’m in a school with 20 children and they want to touch her, that will not go over well. I try to teach them to always ask before touching someone’s dog, and to always give the dog space. She knows when to give other people space.”


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