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July 20, 2011

Working Miracles with Healing Hounds

A Conn. Eucharistic minister runs a dog therapy program helping everyone from students to aging patients

  • Don, Brasil and friends listen during the reading program at East Norwalk Library. Stan Siegel

  • A young boy reads to Brasil at East Norwalk Library in Connecticut. ABC News

  • Brasil, Don Smith's therapy dog, curls up by a window. Don Smith

by Karen Louden Allanach

Finding your way out of a dark place—grief, illness, blindness—can be a daunting thing. Even finding the right person to help can feel insurmountable. Sometimes, though, the best person to help is not a person at all. He is a dog.

Ask Don Smith, the director of the animal-assisted therapy program at Stamford Hospital in Stamford, Conn., about the countless ways therapy dogs help people: from elderly patients in rehabilitation to young children struggling with reading literacy.

Inspiration from grief

Smith, a Eucharistic minister with St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Darien, Conn. became involved with animal therapy after his wife of 52 years, Bobbie, passed away in 2006. Ten years earlier, Bobbie began having heart trouble that would lead to 43 hospitalizations over the next decade.

Being in the hospital made Bobbie very depressed, Smith says. But there was one thing that could light her back up—a visit from the dogs in Stamford Hospital’s therapy program.

"They brought her right out of her depression,” he says.

Smith, a retired New York art director, says he wanted to repay the wonderful people at the hospital who were a comfort to his wife, and to honor her memory. He remembered the joy the dogs gave Bobbie while she was in the hospital.

Where there is a need, there is a dog

Smith acquired his animal-assisted therapy certification with The Delta Society and he and his whippet Brasil, were on their way. Soon after he started with Stamford he was offered the opportunity to run the animal-assisted therapy program that once comforted his wife.

The program, “Healing Hounds,” has grown from 30 to 58 dogs (of all breeds, sizes and shapes) and their volunteer handlers, and provides service to Stamford Hospital as well as to children’s programs, rehabilitation centers, hospice and more. Where there is a need, there is a dog.

At Stamford Hospital, the volunteers and dogs visit patients on a number of floors. In rehabilitation, stroke victims pet dogs as an exercise to get them to use their hands; in pediatrics, a dog curls up on a bed to soothe a frightened child; in post-op, a dog may be the first vision a patient sees when she opens her eyes after surgery; in psychiatry, patients draw colorful pictures of the dogs who visit them.

“People are very appreciative of what we do,” Smith says.

When visiting patients with Brasil to provide communion or for therapy, Smith says he always carries a St. Francis of Assisi prayer in his pocket:

Blessed are you, Lord God, making of all living creatures. You called forth the fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures.

Devotion, companionship and a nursing home miracle

There was one special lady Smith will never forget—Alice.

“I had been bringing communion to a 103-year-old woman who had been transferred to a nursing home,” he said. “When I first went to visit her, she had a picture over her bed of the exact image of my dog! I asked her where she had gotten that picture, and she told me that her husband had given it to her as a wedding present 65 years ago.”

Alice had not walked in several years. Smith proposed a challenge: He told Alice that if she could get out of bed and use a walker, he would visit her three times a week and take a walk with his dog. Alice got out of bed and the trio took regular walks for one year before she lapsed into a coma. At that time, Smith brought Brasil to her bed where the dog would lay down with Alice for two hours a day until the day she died.

Reading Education Assistance Dogs

Therapy dogs have a special way of helping children as well. Smith is certified under the R.E.A.D (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program through Intermountain Therapy Animals in Utah, which uses registered therapy animals to assist children with reading literacy.

The dog becomes the reading companion to the child. The R.E.A.D program is used in libraries and schools nationwide and in Italy, Canada and the U.K. Under Smith’s leadership, a pilot program was established at the East Norwalk Library at the request of RSVP (Retired Seniors’ Volunteer Program) and since has expanded to four other libraries in Southwest Conn.

Almost 5,000 children have been reached through the R.E.A.D program since it was established in Southwest Conn. in 2009. Almost 2,000 of those children have been directly helped by Smith and Brasil. Last summer, the program received national attention when Diane Sawyer and ABC World News Tonight covered the story.

Stanley M. Siegel, executive director of East Norwalk Library, created a photo book of the first year of their R.E.A.D. program which they call "D2R2" or "Dogs to Read to."

"In addition to his own dog, Don was in touch with more than 20 other owners whose pets are also certified and who would be happy to be read to," Siegel says. "Now in its third year at the East Norwalk Library, the 'D2R2' program has proven to encourage children to read, help overcome shyness, build self-esteem and self-confidence, and participate in a non-judgmental activity as the dogs are very patient and eager to listen."

A blind child opens his eyes to reading

Smith shares another story of an 8-year-old boy who came to the Byram Library.

“He said, ‘I’ve brought my own book to read.’ I realized it was Braille.” The boy sat down and ran his fingers over the raised Braille letters on the pages and ran his other hand over the dog. “I am trying to feel what he looks like,” Smith says, recalling the boy’s words.

Then the boy’s mother, with tears in her eyes, told Smith, that while they had that book for a long while, it was the first time her son had opened and read it.

“I see a lot of God in these animals, in what they do,” Smith says.

Karen L. Allanach is associate director of faith outreach for The Humane Society of the United States.

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