Therapy dogs: A little fur goes a long way
Saturday, August 23, 2014 12:00 AM
Animal handler Mike Nichols of Cairo interacts with Sophie and Sky, his therapy dogs that travel to hospitals, schools and nursing homes around the Tri-County area. He is registered with Pet Partners that sponsors the dogs. (DHI Media/Andrew Cohen)
DELPHOS —They can lower blood pressure and calm a crying child in the emergency room. They aren’t found on a doctor’s prescription pad; they come packaged with four paws, fur and warm brown eyes. They are Sophie and Sky, Mike Nichols’ therapy dogs.
Nichols, of Cairo, is a retired animal handler who takes care of Sky and Sophie. They are a black Labrador/German Shepherd mix and will turn 8 years-old this November. He found the dogs at the Kenton Animal Shelter located in Kenton. Surprisingly, his son picked them up and put them under the tree Christmas morning. Nichol’s said they were a wonderful addition to the family.
All types and ages of people can get therapy dogs. Nichol’s travels all around with them, including to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and even assisted living facilities. The dogs are sponsored through an organization known as Pet Partners. Formally known as the Delta Society, Pet Partners is an organization which encourages the use of therapy dogs in the respective communities. According to its mission statement, the agency encourages positive human-animal interaction. According to Nichols, he wanted therapy dogs because he liked the concept of dogs helping other people and has enjoyed the experience so far.
Nichols and his dogs have been making the rounds for the past three years. Beforehand, they had to complete a rigorous series of certifications. To become sponsored by Pet Partners, there were many components he needed to pass. Before he could even begin the process, he had to get Sky and Sophie to a level called Canine Good Citizen, sponsored by The American Kennel Club. This includes 10 tests, which are mainly behavioral tests such as the dogs’ reactions with a trusted person or walking through a crowd. Then he could apply for Pet Partners for which he had to complete a four-step process. First, he had to take a course called Human End. Second, he needed to have the dogs’ health checked out by a veterinarian. Then the dogs and Nichols had to take a similar test as for Canine Good Citizen, in addition, doing an aptitude test. Finally, he filled out the registration form and his four-legged friends became therapy dogs.
“The bond that I have with my dogs is as strong as the bond with my children,” Nichols said. “I would die for them.”
He treats them like they are his family and gets as much out of it as he puts in. He loves them unconditionally. The reward is when he and the dogs make a child smile or bring a patient out of depression if only for a short time.
“That’s it, when it really hits me that this is a wonderful thing we are doing,” he said.
One of his best experiences was when he brought Sophie into a room with an elderly man. From the moment Sophie approached the man, Nichols knew they had an instant connection with each other.
“He acted like Sophie was his long-lost friend,” Nichols recalled.
He stayed in that room for 45 minutes and when he left, the nurse said the man had just lost his own dog and that’s when he knew why the connection had been established so quickly.
Nichols and his pets also stop and interact with employees and volunteers wherever they visit and sometimes, this can be a small problem.
“When we make our rounds at Lima Memorial, we always visit the girls in the outpatient clinic,” he said. “They all know us so they have treats in their desks for whichever dog I have with me. By the time we get through, the dog will have had seven or eight treats and then it’s naptime; they just want to lay down and take a break. So, we try to make that visit the last of the day.”
Nichols and his canines are also popular in elementary schools. He said they seem to have a magical effect on special needs students.
“You can just see their whole faces light up when they see us in the hall or we enter their rooms,” he said. “They get down on the floor with the dog or hang on it and I’ve even had smaller children lay on the dog’s back. Sophie and Sky just take it and look like they’re having the time of their lives.”
Nichols’ last piece of advice was if someone has a dog that is trainable to be a therapy dog, they should go for it.
“You get so much satisfaction from the dogs and the people you come in contact with and help,” he said. “I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to have that experience.”