When Manny arrives at the Family Relief Nursery, 234 S.E. 7th Ave., his tail wags in anticipation of greeting his young clients and getting to work. Lynn Parsons handles the 88-pound yellow English Labrador retriever (Lab), who wears a green vest signaling that he’s a registered therapy assistance animal. For the past five years, this pet partner team has volunteered on Monday mornings at the relief nursery where they visit children from six weeks to five years old.
“Therapy assistance animals are integral to providing a nurturing experience for at-risk families,” said Family Relief program supervisor Crystal Ross. She recently recalled a 16-month-old boy with attachment issues who cried when his mom dropped him off at Family Relief. Within a month, the boy grew to love Manny, depending on him for comfort. Ross has seen therapy assistance dogs calm and soothe children, positively impacting their social well-being.
Founded in 1992, Family Relief Nursery is one of thirty programs under the umbrella organization, Volunteers of America, Oregon. The program serves families in Multnomah County who are undergoing stressful and overwhelming situations. For six hours a week, Family Relief teachers and volunteers provide therapeutic early childhood classrooms and respite care services for families to find jobs or housing, or attend classes. For more information: visit the Family Relief website or call 503-236-8492.
Positive pet interactions
Children have developed a level of trust with Parsons and Manny through regular visits. Parsons recalled working with twin sisters in the toddler class where one child spoke only a few words. The girl increasingly showed interest in watching Manny play fetch with Parsons, and one day decided to verbalize commands to Manny, asking him to get the ball, then drop it. Parsons saw an amazing turnaround in the child and has seen children on the autism spectrum transform from being shut-down and acting out to kids who are happy to play with Manny.
“I believe interacting with Manny helps children build skills to communicate, take care of themselves, and get their needs met,” said Parsons. “Manny brings these children joy.”
Parsons, a resident of Rose City Park, began volunteering as a teacher’s assistant in underprivileged communities in Los Angeles. Parsons moved to Portland and trained a female Lab named Laurel to provide therapy assistance to recovering stroke patients. After Laurel retired, Parsons acquired a male Lab whose breeding name is “Armani, the man makes the clothes,” but she calls him Manny.
The handsome, sweet yellow Lab is unflappable and showed he had the temperament to work with children. Manny did well in nose-work classes, demonstrating that he had the aptitude to learn, and he passed the therapy exam before he turned two years old.
Predictable and controllable animals
Lori Kirby, who works for the Oregon Humane Society’s training and behavior department, is a Pet Partners evaluator and instructor. Kirby said the best handlers know their dog and can predict their reactions.
“Dogs who love people more than anything else, in any situation, make the best therapy dogs,” said Kirby.
Dogs who are predictable and controllable are more successful, and the handler plays a key role in managing the dog. A dog who’s older than five might be naturally calm and a better fit working with young kids, according to Kirby.
Golden Retrievers and Labradoodles are bred to love people and excel at performing therapy assistance work, according to Kirby. “You can doodle anything,” said Kirby, referring to cross-breeding Labs with poodles who are known for their intelligence, making them excellent therapy dogs.
Handlers should be skilled at “proactively preventing behaviors from happening.” Correcting the dog’s behavior should be seamless to the clients they visit. Small-breed dogs including Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Havanese, and Pomeranian were bred for companionship, but ultimately it’s the dog’s personality that determines whether it’s well-suited for therapy work, according to Kirby.
Kirby has evaluated therapy cats, although responsibility falls on the handler to train small animals. Family Relief has two therapy bunnies which they make available for older children to pet and visit the classroom. The bunnies, named Benji and Carmen, were donated by a volunteer who re-homed them to Family Relief.
On Saturday, August 20, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m., the humane society is offering a free one-hour workshop, “Helping Paws; How Your Dog Can Be a Therapy Dog.” For more information, visit the humane society website.