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Pictured: Volunteers trained with therapy / facility dogs with some of the VIP dog teams. Photo submitted.
by Kimberly Rivers
Do you remember those historical photos of Dalmatian dogs sitting on fire engines and serving as mascots for fire stations? In addition to making great community ambassadors, dogs provide great comfort to people of all ages who work in challenging and stressful situations.
More and more researchers are finding scientific evidence of what people who spend their lives with dogs (and other animals) already know: They contribute to calm and happiness.
A local organization is working to get more dogs into these environments to help children and adults.
VIP Dog Teams is a non-profit based in Camarillo with a mission to promote the human-animal relationship that changes lives and leads to healing by promoting positive interactions with therapy and facility dogs. Nancy Mitchell, president and head trainer, says the organization is currently actively seeking community members interested in becoming dog handlers to bring a specially trained therapy / facility dog into their workplace.
“VIP dog teams would love to put a school therapy / facility dog in any school that sees the healing power of a dog,” she said. Dogs are usually placed with physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and fire fighters. Ideally, two co-handlers work together.
Mitchell, who lives in Camarillo, is a registered nurse teaching nurse at California State University, Channel Islands. She has been training dogs for six years and is certified as a Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) evaluator by the American Kennel Club. She founded VIP Dog Teams in 2016 “after struggling to find a service dog for my own son with special needs. In the end I trained a dog for him and we decided that a therapy dog would suit him better. “
During the therapy work with her son as a dog handler “I saw the joy and happiness that the dog gave the students and the trust that a trained therapy dog gave my son when he visited. I wanted to do this for more people so I started VIP Dog Teams. . . I am an RN baby sister. . . So babies and puppies, what could be better? “
A certified therapy dog is usually their handler’s personal pet who takes the dog to places where the dog can comfort or support those in need. The work is not limited to people with recognized disabilities. Dogs generally go through basic obedience training and it is recommended that a pre-therapy class be taken to assess obedience and temperament to ensure that the dog is well suited for this type of work. Once a dog handler and dog have passed a therapy dog test, they can be registered with an organization that provides therapy dog services.
The Facility Dog Supplemental Training is designed to prepare the dog to help professionals in their workplace achieve goals with those the handler serves. Teachers, therapists, medical providers, and first responders are usually the ones who would work with a facility dog to help people. For example, in physiotherapy situations, a dog can help motivate the patient to pick up a ball to play with, or to keep throwing a ball. The dog becomes part of the therapy to achieve therapeutic goals.
Likewise, dogs in a school setting can encourage students in new ways. Sometimes a non-verbal student wants to talk about the dog, or playing with the dog becomes a way to connect with their peers. The simple act of calming down from the presence of a dog like Mitch, a Goldendoodle with VIP Dog Team, allows some students to more easily focus on classroom assignments and activities.
Make the grade
Puppies considered by VIP dog teams are closely watched from birth.
“We like the social butterfly pup. . . We are looking for the general temperament. We test after seven weeks because puppies can have a fearful phase after eight weeks and we usually send puppies to their new home when they are eight weeks old. ”
She said puppies are tested for over 10 different traits.
“The big three seem to be fetching [it] shows a dog’s willingness to please you and work with you. Quick recovery from surprising experiences. “Mitchell explained that dogs are put into different situations and” need to be comfortable and enjoyable to interact with. And last but not least, the social attraction: does the puppy like to be touched and to pay attention? ”
As a puppy, Mitch lived with a puppy parenting family who agreed to “take on the job of raising and raising a puppy in their home, knowing that they would release it to work about a year and a half”.
The Millers were Mitch’s family; Members attended training sessions with VIP dog teams each week, and Mitch’s training was progressing.
Mitch turns two in January and has been training since he was eight weeks old. He was tested at seven weeks of temperament and showed the desirable traits. He completed his puppy courses, both standard and advanced CGC levels, and a therapy preparation course with the Millers.
In June, when he was one and a half years old, he moved in with his supervisor Melissa Kasso, a school counselor at Rancho Rosal Elementary School in Camarillo. Mitch had two months to settle in and build confidence in his new handler before continuing with any further training.
Mitch had to pass all the levels he’d already passed at the Millers with his new handler before moving on to advanced training and testing.
With all of the training and testing under his collar, Mitch started his new job as a school therapy / facility dog at Rancho Rosal.
Mitchell said that “the use of dog assistants in mental health schools is becoming more widespread” as the benefits of therapy / facility dogs become apparent on campus. They seem to give a huge moral boost to both students and staff.
“Mitch is so popular at this school that the teachers email the school advisor and reserve him. He makes his way to every classroom that has requested him. “
Research, including a study completed at Yale University, has shown the cognitive, physiological, and emotional benefits dogs can have for people of all ages.
But one hurdle the organization is working to overcome is finding puppy breeders.
“We have a very limited number of people willing to raise puppies,” confirmed Mitchell.
VIP Dog Teams is looking for responsible people in the community who are willing to take on the task of raising a puppy from eight weeks to one and a half years of age and commit to complete all necessary training along the way, with the understanding that the dog after all, go will live with his guide.
The organization also breeds “functionally” for the special characteristics that are required of therapy dogs. Mitchell stated that they are selecting a “very special therapy / facility mum dog” that will be bred with “a therapy / facility dog father to produce potential working therapy / facility pups.”
A litter of puppies was recently born that probably has the characteristics required for this specialized work.
Before VIP began breeding proven therapy / facility dogs, the group rescued “very carefully tested dogs” from the Ventura County Animals Services shelter in Camarillo. The dogs were housed at Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula for a training program with inmates. Every six months, four dogs were trained and 16 dogs completed the program.
“We ran the program for two years and had an 80% success rate,” said Mitchell. “These dogs have been adopted by the public and most are in meet-and-greet therapy in our community.”
The organization also manages two programs at the Camarillo Boys and Girls Club for teenagers and young children. The therapy dogs help the teenagers explore various topics such as trust, teamwork, communication, and leadership, with each teen handling a dog during the session. For the younger children, the dogs help them practice high-frequency words with games and one-on-one conversations.
Dogs rarely judge when a child makes a mistake, and often students are more comfortable taking risks and trying things out working with dogs than working with teachers. Volunteers bring their dogs to these sessions to play word games. The children show significant retention after the sessions with the dogs compared to the pre-session assessment.
Currently, VIP Dog Teams is focused on facility and goal-oriented therapy dogs. We train about four dogs a year. ”With functional breeding for the traits we wanted, Mitchell added that“ we can train more dogs. We need to find people who would like to use these dogs for facility and / or therapy work and have the time and effort to train with us. I have a feeling that the general public just doesn’t know we are here, but we are and we want to work with those who are interested in the healing powers of a dog. “