When Murray, a 9-year-old yellow labradoodle, is brought into a room full of 5-year-olds, he walks to the middle of it and lies down on command.
His vest is taken off so the children who need sensory stimulation can more easily pet and brush his fur.
One little blonde girl, who cannot speak and has a hard time stretching out her arms and hands, is encouraged to recline on Murray’s side.
She smiles as she nuzzles him with her head, and he leans his head back and gives her a dog-kiss with his tongue.
“Aww,” Murray’s owner, Wendy Gerard, said as she watched. “He doesn’t usually do that.”
Murray is huge — almost the size of a Great Dane for reasons that baffle his owner. Despite his size, when the children gather around him to brush and pet him, he lies there and allows them do whatever they want. That’s because he is a trained Therapet, used to help the Tyler ISD students at the Wayne D. Boshears Center for Exceptional Programs accomplish different goals.
Although the Therapet Foundation is in its 20th year, the Therapet program at Boshears started about five years ago.
There, it serves students with severe mental and physical disabilities who range in age from 3 to 21.
Some use the dogs to improve their communication. Some walk the dogs as part of their physical therapy. Some simply need animal socialization to see that “not all dogs are scary,” said Glenda Lindekugel, owner of 3-year-old Bonnie, a mutt who is a Therapet.
Susan Strawn, who owns Concho, a 6-year-old golden retriever mix, said the dogs that serve at Boshears are some of the best dogs in the Therapet program.
“They know immediately when to settle down and have to be ready for anything,” she said.
Concho in particular has been poked, pulled, even bitten on the nose. He takes it all in stride, Ms. Strawn said.
WHAT IS THERAPET?
More than 90 teams, each made up of a dog and its handler, volunteer with Therapet.
The program is open to all kinds of dogs, pure and mixed breeds. Therapet President Lynn McGinnis said more than 80 percent of the organization’s animals are rescue animals. There are five cats and one bird as well.
The Therapet program provides three services: animal-assisted therapy, visitation and a reading program.
Karen Reed, coordinator of the Therapet program at Boshears and one of the primary dog trainers, said dogs have to be at least 1 year old and have completed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program to train as a Therapet. The Good Citizen program emphasizes responsible pet ownership for owners and basic good manners for dogs, according to its website.
Once a dog meets those qualifications, it can participate with its owner in the Therapet skills class where it will learn how to work in hospitals and around children and adults.
Upon successful completion of the skills class, the dog must undergo temperament testing, which is essentially a stressful obedience exam completed in a hospital, Ms. Reed said.
The temperament test is not something a pet can train for. Rather it is something a pet either has or doesn’t have, she said.
“They’re innately born with it,” Ms. Reed said. “The trainers need to know how a dog is going to react if it’s bitten on the nose or has its hair pulled. They also need to know if it can innately sense what a patient needs. Some patients want a dog to cuddle and others don’t.”
Upon successful completion of the temperament testing, the dog completes an apprenticeship period in which it participates in at least three visits to different locations where it works as a therapy dog.
A mentor, someone who has worked with a Therapet, accompanies the dog and its handler to see how it works in various settings.
Once the dog successfully completes the apprenticeship program, it earns a Therapet cape, collar and leash.
Every year, it completes ongoing training, which is essentially a repeat of the skills training it did to become a Therapet, Ms. Reed said.
“A lot of being a Therapet team is definitely trusting (the) handler,” Ms. Reed said.
WORKING AT BOSHEARS
The dogs and their handlers visit the school every other week for two hours each time. The largest group served by the program in a day was 64 students, but that is not in one sitting.
The volunteers visit different classrooms every 30 minutes to work with the students in small groups, Ms. Reed said.
Therapet started the Boshears center visits after Ms. Reed saw how positively the students and teachers responded to her dog’s presence when he accompanied her as she dropped off and picked up her daughter at Boshears. She has multiple Therapet dogs.
Ms. Reed said the teachers use the pets as tools for whatever skills they are working on with the students. This can include helping the students develop their communication skills, fine and gross motor skills and positioning. In addition, sometimes the pets can just be friends to the students.
During the recent visit, one class of children attached clip-on bows to the dogs’ fur. Another class played with a special vest that Babe, a 10-year-old yellow lab, wore. The vest had a zipper, Velcro, ribbons to tie and other sensory skill objects attached to it.
“For some students, it’s a motivating factor,” Boshears teacher Brenda Corley said of the Therapets. “Walking the dog is much more motivating than just walking.”
One student she recalled kept her fist closed constantly. So they tried putting a treat in her hand, and the dog just licked and licked her fist until she opened it and gave him the treat.
“You can see the progress with some of the kids,” Mrs. Lindekugel said. “One girl was terrified of dogs, but then she got to where she would walk them with a big smile on her face.”
Still, not every situation results in a breakthrough, Ms. Reed said.
For example, during the most recent visit, some students didn’t seem to respond to the pets. When one dog laid its head on a student’s lap, the dog’s owner took the student’s hand to stroke the dog, but the student kept staring off into the distance.
But the program is well worth it, and the moments of progress are many, according to those who have witnessed it in action.
“Our children, every single time they come, you can see their expressions change — you can see their body language change because they love the feel, the touch that those … animals provide,” Boshears Center Principal Denese Johnson said in a video about the program.