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An Interview with a Therapy Dog Handler

We asked the questions our readers have been emailing.   Myles of Smiles is a non-for-profit organization whose mission is to promote the use of therapy dogs within the mental/behavioral health community.

N: When you and Myles are working with kids, does he seem to bond with any certain types of children, for instance children with a mental health issue or children with behavioral disorders etc.?

K: Great questions. I think all the kids need him just because he is such a positive presence. I always feel like I am delivering flowers. Everyone is happy when the flower delivery person shows up. Myles and I are greeted with smiles, cheers, “thank God you are here”, and lots of hugs.  The other day someone said it was our ministry.  I was surprised by this but I guess it is although no one has put me and the word ministry in the same sentence before.

Yes. These are the kids and adults he bonds with the most. He is very in tune with whatever is going on with their moods. He was well trained with moodiness (he is my dog after all :)) Seriously though, he gravitates towards all kids but if one of them is upset in some way he spends more time with them. He is great with kids that are really shy about reading too.

N: Do the children themselves seem to respond differently toward Myles depending on their health issues? Are there children with specific mental health disorders or behavioral disorders who seem to “need” the therapy with Myles more so than other children? If so, how do they show this to you? Does Myles pick up on this need?

K: Myles changes his behavior depending on who he is working with so if this is a child with a speech impediment that is working on reading out loud, Myles will do things like roll on his back and paw at the book they are trying to read. I used to scold him for this behavior but I started to realize this is a tactic he seems to use based on the child’s nervousness. He does not behave this way, for example, if a child has no problem reading aloud. But, a child really struggling while they are reading and their level of anxiety is increasing he “teases” and distracts them. This lessens their anxiety level and increases their confidence in reading out loud.

In these situations I back out of the child’s field of vision so they can only see Myles. They are simply reading to a dog. I have also gone toe to toe with some parents that want to jump in because of their own internal issues with their child’s struggles. The more the parent backs off and lets this moment be about their child, the book, and Myles the better experience it will be for everyone. What the child accomplished was the proof that the stuttering can lessen or stop, they can read aloud, they can focus. So therein lies the memory for the next time they have to read/speak out loud.

N: Do you think Myles is benefiting from these visits as well?

K: He was put on this earth to be a therapy dog. He is all about love. There have been times when he spends an inordinate amount of time with a particular person and will do things out of the ordinary like bark right in someone’s face. Myles is not a barker. This happens when someone is struggling with their own racing thoughts or in a fog of medication. He is trying to get their attention. If he can get them to focus on him there is an extra zip in his step.

N: I know you have said he seems really tired and worn out after a visit to a school or therapy session, do you think there is any specific visits that seem to wear him out or tire him out more so than others?

K: We have had some pretty hairy situations with children and adults that were extremely upset. I have had to jump in, literally, to protect my dog and myself. Myles doesn’t seem to take it personally and I sure don’t. It’s out in the “normal” world where things are taken personally but certainly not in a therapy dog session.

I would say visits where he is doing a lot of running and jumping tire him out physically. This is interesting though, he can run after a ball all day long when he is with his brothers and sisters at home. I really mean it too. I have put a pedometer on him and he can clear miles and miles a day without much of a break. In a therapy setting though I keep the visits to a maximum of 45 minutes. He is worn out with less physical exercise and it has to be the emotional part that makes him tired. Every person he is visiting needs him in some way or another emotionally. Whether people believe this or not, that neediness can be draining for him and for me. There are visits where we both are ready to go and that elevator just isn’t opening fast enough to get back to the car. But, most of the time, he is energized.

He does have “the life”. How many dogs get full body massages by hundreds of people, tons of treats, tons of praise, hugs, their hair brushed, a ball thrown, two homes where he is adored, and life as an only dog plus life with their litter mates running around and just doing “dog” stuff?

Interview by Nicole Blazer with Kristin Walker, Founder of Myles of Smiles, Inc. and CEO of Mental Health News Radio Network and everythingEHR , a behavioral health provider advocacy firm.



Animal Assisted Therapy, behavioral health, counseling, healing, Kristin Sunanta Walker, mental health, myles of smiles, pet therapy, recovery, service dog, trauma, wellness

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