Therapy Dogs Happy to Lend a Helping Paw

Caleb Howard was only seven years old, and yet he was living a lifetime’s worth of pain all at once. As he lay in bed at the Intensive Care unit of Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, no one knew how–or if–he’d ever fully recover. The same accident that Caleb survived had killed half of his family. In June of 2007, Caleb’s mom, Janine, was driving on Highway 89 in Layton when a distracted driver crossed the center lane and hit the family’s car head-on. Janine, 39, and  Caleb’s brother Matthew, 11, were killed immediately. Eight-year-old Esther died the next day. Caleb and his sister, Rachel, 13, were the only survivors.

Of the two, Caleb’s status was the most precarious. The force of impact caused Caleb’s brain to hurl forward, hitting the front of the skull, then the back. Millions of vulnerable brain cells were damaged. Doctors warned Caleb’s father, Ben, that if he did live, it was likely he would never be the same. With each passing day, Caleb’s poor health remained stagnant and Ben lost a little more hope of a full recovery.

Caleb doesn’t remember much about those days–only that he felt overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings of the hospital and abrupt change from a fully functioning brain and body to one that was barely hanging on. He was sad and confused. He wanted his mom.


Sensing a need for comfort and familiarity, Caleb’s doctor asked Ben a question: Did his son like dogs?

“Yes,” said Ben, incredulous. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It’s a long shot,” replied the doctor, “but I’ve got something in mind.”

therapy dogs
Caleb and Colonel

That “something” was a golden retriever named Colonel, an Intermountain Therapy Dog who roamed the halls of Primary Children’s with his handler, Susan Daynes. The first time Colonel entered Caleb’s room was the first time since the accident Caleb had shown real awareness. His gaze tracked Colonel’s red fur as the dog lumbered across the room. A nurse lifted Caleb’s hand and helped him pet the dog. Caleb’s jaw dropped.

“It was a boost to see such a substantial change in awareness,” says Ben. “It was a real turning point.”

Each time Colonel returned to Caleb’s room, a little more progress was made. First, a wiggle of the fingers as Caleb motioned to indicate he wanted to pet his furry friend. Then a bend of the elbow. A turn of the neck. Whispered words. With help from his physical therapist, he started throwing the ball for Colonel to play fetch. Within a month,Caleb was walking and talking again.

“Caleb just needed something motivating enough to get him to move,” says Primary Children’s physical therapist, Lisa Barnes, who oversaw Caleb’s rehabilitation, “You could see that motivation to open his hands to try to pet him, which was a really hard thing for him to do.” But the payoff of feeling Colonel’s fur was worth it.

The dog became an anchor of normalcy in a grossly abnormal environment. Instead of yet another excruciating rehabilitation exercise, Caleb was simply playing fetch. While doctors poked and prodded him, Caleb was getting wet kisses from a golden retriever. When Colonel was around, Caleb wasn’t an intensive care patient anymore—he was just a seven-year-old boy with a dog.

Dogs = Comfort

Dogs have long been a source of comfort and companionship for humans. They’re loyal, devoted, and affectionate—indeed, man’s best friend. All it really takes to earn the trust and love of a dog is a scratch behind the ear and a coo: Who’s a good girl? You are. Yes, you are. It’s simple. It’s pleasant. It’s completely without condition. And it feels really good.

Helping and Healing It’s important to note therapy dogs are not service dogs. A service dog is an animal trained solely to perform tasks for its owner. Service dogs provide specific support for individuals with disabilities, seizure disorders, mobility challenges, diabetes or other health conditions. They perform specific tasks, such as guiding a person who cannot see, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to sound, standing guard over a person having a seizure or reminding a person to take medication. They are protected by federal law under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Therapy dogs are also not emotional support animals. This designation describes an animal whose role is to provide comfort and companionship to a person with depression, anxiety or certain phobias. They do not have to be trained for their role, nor are they covered by the ADA.

The role of therapy dogs is much broader, as they are trained to react and respond to people and the environment. They are comfortable with a variety of people and able to adjust behavior and energy levels for each interaction. Each dog and handler must complete an intensive training period and several tests before being allowed to volunteer through an animal therapy organization. Membership in such groups often includes liability insurance, ongoing training and access to a dog training expert.

That’s animal-assisted therapy, in a nutshell: enhancing the quality of life through the bond between humans and animals. The national animal therapy organization Pet Partners report more than 10,000 registered teams of volunteer handlers and dogs visit nursing homes, hospitals, schools and community settings each year. They comfort victims of tragedy and disaster, radiate calm to stressed travelers at airports, provide companionship to nursing home residents, bring joy to hospice patients, and teach children (and more than a few adults) how to be gentle and kind.

“We send teams to more than 100 area facilities, which cover all ages, diagnoses and situations,” says Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City. “Whenever there is therapy going on, of whatever kind, adding an animal into the scene will encourage motivation and participation, harder and more enthusiastic work on their goals, and more fun.

Caleb Howard’s story is just one of many examples of the value of animal therapy. In his case, the dog served as a way to get the young boy excited about performing the tasks of an otherwise arduous rehabilitation. But in other settings, their role changes. On a therapist’s couch, the presence of a dog may help reluctant patients open up; in a support group for people with terminal illness, they model the joy of living in the moment; in a drug or alcohol abuse program, they foster a sense of responsibility. Simply petting a dog has been found to decrease levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing and lower blood pressure.

To some, the idea of animal therapy may seem too simplistic. But that very simplicity is what makes it so powerful. Unlike human interaction, which is rife with condition and complication, therapy dogs are just pleased to have a new best friend. For someone who’s having a tough time, that unconditional love is a nice reprieve.

“The most powerful moments are the smallest ones,” says Preston Chiaro, who volunteers at the University of Utah Hospital with his standard poodle, Fred. “When you walk into a room in the burn unit and the nurses are huddled around a bed working on a small child, who is frightened and hurting, and all of a sudden the crying child sees the dog and smiles, you immediately know that the animal is making a difference. Or the look of relief on a nurse who has just dealt with some awful injury and who needs a few moments to gather herself and feel better by petting a dog. Or the harried parent at the airport traveling with small children who appreciates the short break they get by having their young ones play with a dog for a few minutes. None of these moments are earth-shattering, but they each demonstrate the power of the animal-human bond to make an instant difference in someone’s life.”


The R.E.A.D Program

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Chassy the Great Dane and her handler Jenica Laws listen to Jodi Poppleton read.

Under a table at the Whitmore branch of the Salt Lake County library, a young child is reading from Goodnight Moon. Her voice is high and halting, and she often starts a word, only to shake her head and try again. But Chassy, who’s listening intently with ears perked, doesn’t mind. She’s just happy to be at storytime—Goodnight Moon is one of her favorites.

The Gladiator Dane and her handler, Jenica Laws, are a hot ticket at the library’s Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, in which the therapy animals support educational goals. Many of the children who take part in the program have difficulty reading, and often feel self-conscious about it. By reading to a dog, the fear of being judged is eliminated; after all, a dog doesn’t interrupt when a child takes too long to sound out a word.

It’s a feeling Laws knows all too well. “When I was in elementary school, I did not enjoy reading at all. I had a hard time reading in front of the class, and was a little behind on my reading level,” says Laws. “When I found out about the R.E.A.D. program and how It helps children with reading confidence, I knew I wanted to do this. If Chassy and I could help one child gain that confidence and start to love reading, it would all be worth it. I wish they had this program when I was a child.”

Chassy, along with the dozen other dogs in the R.E.A.D. program, help more than 1,000 Utah children each year get excited about reading, improving skills and sparking a lifelong love of books. The unique program has garnered international attention, with librarians from Taiwan and Mexico visiting the Salt Lake County Library in 2018 to learn how they can replicate the program in their home country.

“Anytime we can help kids improve their reading, we’ll absolutely take advantage of it,” says Tavin Stuckey of the Salt Lake County Library. “I know a lot of times kids will come in and see the shiny electronics at a branch library, like the tablets or computers or 3D printers, which are also obviously great learning tools. But I’ve noticed kids are very excited and drawn into the chance to read with a dog, so they’ll sit down and actually read.”

For Jim Pehkonen of Millcreek, each day volunteering at the Huntsman Cancer Center is a full-circle moment. Huntsman is where he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and where he received the treatment that saved his life. Huntsman was also the place where Pehkonen saw the power of animal therapy, witnessing dogs provide comfort and joy to both first-day chemotherapy patients and those nearing the end of their lives.

“After I beat cancer, I wanted to give back. I wanted to get and train a dog specifically to go up to Huntsman to assist those who were getting chemotherapy,” says Pehkonen. “That was important to me.”

Pehkonen found Luna, a Red Heeler/Basenji mix who had been abandoned in a box and brought to Rescue Rovers shelter in Salt Lake City. Luna was bright, affectionate, and easy to train – in short, she was the perfect candidate for training as a therapy dog. After more than a year of training together, the two became members of Intermountain Therapy Animals. Today, Pehkonen and Luna celebrate their second chance at life by volunteering three times a week at the Huntsman Cancer Center.

Though Pehkonen has first-hand familiarity with the program and how the patients are feeling, it’s Luna who possesses a keen ability to sniff out the patients who need her the most.

“She always knows what each person needs,” says Pehknonen. “One day, we were in the infusion unit, and someone was in hysterics. Luna just sat down beside the infusion chair, and this person told me he had just been diagnosed and this was his first chemotherapy treatment. Within five minutes, he was calm, just for having Luna there and someone to talk to. Another time, we were in a patient room where a patient was in her last stage of life. Luna jumped up on the bed and just allowed the patient to pet her. There was such a sense of calm. It was so powerful.”

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Susan Lacke
Susan Lacke
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