Career change for service dogs: Therapy is second shot at success

Art, who was too anxious for work as a guide dog, brings love to one and all

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social services, demographics, faith



Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams

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Each litter of guide dogs is named based on a different letter of the alphabet — Art was in the “A” litter. To prevent two dogs from having the same name, a dog’s name can’t be used until the dog retires, dies or changes careers. So “Art” was thrown back into the name pool once Art became a therapy dog.

Pet benefits

Pets have been shown to …

• Improve people’s self-esteem.

• Lower blood pressure.

• Reduce anxiety, fatigue and depression.

• Improve recovery from heart disease.

• Reduce rates of asthma and allergy in children.

• Steady rapid breathing.

Source: DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Twenty-month-old Leland Kasinger waddled over to the yellow Labrador retriever and plopped down next to him, allowing the dog to cover his face in kisses.

"I've never seen my son interact with an animal that well," said Rebecca Kasinger, 29. "He has sensory processing disorder."

She explained that her son doesn't like grass, sleeps only with blankets made of certain fabrics and throws tantrums over wrinkles in his socks. He was diagnosed with the disorder about three months ago. But the bumbling baby seemed at ease as he stroked the 3-year-old dog's smooth coat.

Art, who's trained in providing therapy, visited homeless families staying at Share Homestead in Hazel Dell and Share Orchards Inn on Christmas Eve. The kids instantly flocked to him, which was a little overwhelming at first, said his owner and trainer, Shirley Howard, 58. Although he's not typically encouraged to lick people's faces, the kids welcomed doggy kisses that Art was more than willing to give out. After a while of squealing, the kids calmed down and gently petted the dog — rubbing the hair on his floppy ears and leaning their faces against his.

"You guys are being really gentle with him," Howard told the kids.

After seeing Art work his magic on her son, Rebecca said she's considering getting a therapy dog for her family after they leave Share and move into their home in Hazel Dell at the end of the month.

Art is a "career change dog." Dogs like him are bred and trained to be guide dogs at 3 months old. While he was at guide dog school in Boring, Ore., he had separation anxiety, said Howard's daughter, Kellie. So he became part of a partnership launched this summer between DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital and Guide Dogs for the Blind. The result, Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams, takes career change dogs and retired guide dogs, and trains them to provide therapy.

"They already have the basics down, so why not keep using them?" Howard said.

The Howards raised another guide dog, Lexington, who works for a woman in Canada. Art is highly socialized and loves attention, so he makes a better therapy dog than a guide dog, Kellie Howard said.

Twice a month, he will visit Glenwood Place Senior Living in Vancouver, an assisted living community that specializes in memory care. Kathy Loter, program coordinator for DoveLewis, said that people look forward to seeing the therapy dogs, which often create conversations among residents.

"It's pretty amazing to watch them go into a room," she said.

On a given weekday, you'll find Art in the special education resource room at Prairie High School, where Shirley Howard works as a teaching assistant. One of her students makes a point to see the dog before heading off to his first class.

Art doesn't provide relief just for students. Teachers having a bad day pop into the classroom and hang out with Art for a quick pick-me-up.

"He has a way of staring at someone and making them feel like they're the only person in the room," Howard said. The human-animal bond is soothing and makes a person feel safe.

Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams plans to train 60 to 80 dogs and expand the types of places the dogs go.