by Elyse Kaner
If humans could take lessons from dogs, surely, Dobie, the lab with velvety black fur, would emerge summa cum laude in the category of canine kindness.
Some might recall the three-month-old puppy who in 2005 was flung from the fourth floor of a parking lot in St. Louis Park.
Had it not been for neighbors, who spotted the severely injured dog lying helplessly in the nearby grass, and Duane Hodges of St. Anthony, who happened by as security officials were deciding what to do with him, Dobie’s story might have been different.
As it is, Dobie, the rescue dog, is now Dobie the certified therapy dog. He’s been faithfully performing his duties since the age of two.
“If we’re going someplace special, he starts singing in the back seat of the car,” said his owner and handler Richard Bartel, also of St. Anthony and a friend of Hodges. “It sounds like sort of a gurgling Tarzan yell. He’s so excited to see his buddies.”
The friendly canine, named after Dobie Gillis, the 1960s TV sitcom character, is now six years old. He weighs 84 pounds, a far cry from the 29 pounds he weighed when he was found severely injured with crushed hip sockets.
After seven hours in surgery to remove bone fragments from both sides of his legs where the hip and thigh bones are joined (he now has what are called false sockets developed from muscles and tendons) and nine months of hydrotherapy, walking on an underwater treadmill, Dobie has graduated. To therapy dog.
Today, he may be found working his doggy magic on clients at such places as the University of Minnesota or William Mitchell College of Law schools during finals week, giving students some well-needed stress relief.
Or his attention might be focused on the elderly at nursing homes, on children at the Minnesota Children’s Museum or at Phoenix Alternatives, a day program for people with special needs. He also visits kids served by the Anoka County-based Alexandra House, a shelter for battered women and children, in its community outreach program.
Lapping up the love
Typically, Dobie performs his dog therapy duties two to three times a week.
Last week found him at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center cuddling up to clients. He laps up the love and gives it in return.
Bartel is one of nearly a dozen therapy dog owners who on this day shuttled their dogs to the center to mingle with clients. They are members of Therapy Dogs International Local Chapter 125, Pals on Paws.
With Labrador on leash, Bartel gets down on his knees to Dobie’s level and scoots across the floor. He leads him from client to client, mostly seated in a circle of chairs in a gymnasium. They eagerly accept him.
“This is Dobie,” Bartel says, introducing the gentle pooch, who sits on command and happily accepts assorted pats on the head, scratches under the chin and strokes up and down his back. Some clients give an occasional kiss.
Bartel then launches into the story of how Dobie emerged from his rocky start as a pup to a therapy dog. Or he tells them of Dobie’s favorite activities. Swimming. Or playing tug-of-war.
The clients talk to Bartel. They talk to Dobie. In essence, a social hour of sorts.
“This looks like my dog,” a client says, coddling the dog.
Meanwhile, Dobie sits obediently and with the patience of a sainted dog, if ever there were such a thing, he accepts the love. And he gives it back, just from his calming presence. Occasionally, he offers his paw for a handshake accompanied by a wag of the tail for his new friends.
As of last week, Dobie had logged 324 therapy dog visits to various Twin Cities venues.
That’s not counting the visits Bartel makes with Dobie’s adopted sister, Zelda, a two-and-a-half-year-old golden lab and newly certified therapy dog.
Dobie, in 2011, was inducted into the state’s Veterinarian Medical Association’s Hall of Fame in the Professional Category. And recently, he garnered the esteemed honor of being selected as pin-up dog of the month for March in a 2012 calendar dedicated to those who are passionate about dogs and rescue.
“When people hear what Dobie went through, it makes them believe they can recover, too,” said Lynn Sansale.
Sansale is half of the husband and wife team who launched the new calendar, Rescue Dog to Therapy Dog, which was two years in the making.
Lynn’s husband Paul first snaps photos of the dogs and paints their monthly calendar portraits from the pictures.
When it came to taking Dobie’s photo, he clicked away for two hours. Paul wanted a shot of Dobie with his ears perked up.
After more than two hundred shots, just as he was ready to give up, a neighbor walked by with a dog. Up Dobie’s ears went, and click, click. Now Dobie is immortalized in the calendar.
“There’s nobody who’s not going to like that dog,” Lynn said. “He’s just the best.”
Ready to comfort
So why do dogs make for good therapy?
“The dogs are not judgmental. They’re ready to be friendly. Comforting,” Bartel said. Particularly helpful to the clients at Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center (AMRTC), some of who are committed by the court system because of mental health status.
Others are there for health reasons, substance abuse disorders or serious mental health conditions.
For those who have their own dogs, the visits jog their memories.
“It gives them a reminder that there is someone waiting for them when they get out,” Bartel said.
Liz Friday, clinical program manager at AMRTC, is the one who introduced the dog therapy idea to the center.
Three years ago, she realized many of the clients staying there were missing their pets. But they were not allowed to visit because of health and safety concerns.
A certified therapy dog, however, was a different story.
The center now enjoys therapy dog visits on a weekly basis.
The therapy helps in several ways, Friday said.
“People that I never see smile, they smile when the dog visits,” she said.
The dogs promote social interaction, relieve anxiety, promote relaxation and they help people with their self-confidence.
The visits also help people focus, she said. One client couldn’t string a set of words together to make a sentence. But when a dog visited, she started talking about her childhood, Friday said.
Also, the therapy dog visits help the clients think about getting out of the treatment center and reconnecting with the community.
“We do try to think of it as a treatment modality – moving forward to make changes in their lives,” Friday said.
After leaving the center, some clients have gone on to volunteer in the community with their own pets.
“What we look for in a therapy dog is how much they like people,” said Pat Kinch, leader of Pals on Paws Local Chapter 125, who, last week, also was at AMRTC with her therapy dog, Chopper, a burly but tender rottweiler. “That’s where the empathy comes in. They seem to know when someone needs attention.”
Hours from death
Six years ago Dobie was just hours from being euthanized. But Bartel, who fixes medical equipment for Allina Hospitals and Clinics, and his friend Hodges came to his rescue.
When Hodges happened by the day Dobie was found, he gave the St. Louis Park Police his business card. They called a few days later. No one had come forward to claim the puppy. He could come down and visit if he wanted. Otherwise, the injured dog was slated to be destroyed.
The visit cemented a permanent bond among the two men and Dobie.
After a seven-hour surgery to remove bone fragment from his crushed hips and months of therapy, there were the hospital bills to consider.
Spring Lake Park resident Jill Kaspszak headed funding efforts and came up with the more than $5,000 to pay for Dobie’s care at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center.
Bartel said he did not set out to adopt a therapy dog. But Dobie, in his infinite cleverness, during his hydrotherapy sessions, figured out how to tread on the sideboards rather than in the water. His therapist had to jump into the tank with him.
It was she who handed down the mandate. Dobie needs to go to obedience school, she said.
“He felt like a real shoe-in because he was so socialized by being handled by so many people,” Bartel said about Dobie soaring from rescue to therapy dog status.
“What I hadn’t planned on was it was something that Dobie found to be fun and that I found to be fun,” he said.
Today, Dobie shows hardly any outward signs of prior trauma to his body. He walks with a slight limp. But he can run and jump. He cannot, however, stand on his hind legs.
Fortunately, he is a tall dog, so he can reach people in wheel chairs easily.
Among the many people he helps, Dobie also benefits Bartel.
Bartel walks him every morning for a half-hour. The walks, he says, have lowered his blood pressure significantly, without drugs.
A therapy dog’s job is to offer emotional support, Bartel says.
Judging from all of the clients who last week were reaping the benefits of his visit to Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, Dobie has more than fulfilled his duties.
Nice job, Dobie. Nice job.
The Rescue Dog to Therapy Dog calendar is available for purchase at www.rescuedogart.com. Or visit www.facebook.com/rescuedogart. The calendar may also be purchased at the General Store of Minnetonka, Minnesota Bound at the Mall of America and at most Twin Cities hospital gift shops. Cost is $15.
Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]