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Therapy dogs putting smiles on many faces

July 20th, 2003, 06:48 AM
By Jim Buynak | Sentinel Staff Writer

SORRENTO -- The wagging tails and the smiling faces tell the story.

About a half-dozen volunteers with W.A.G.S. Therapy Dogs brought their dogs to Camp Challenge recently to entertain a group of campers.

Tiffany Kain, 23, of Daytona Beach, who was born with spina bifida, and her good friend, Rebecca Vasey, 34, of Tamp, who has cerebral palsy, get to see each other every year at the camp.

The dog visits have become one of the highlights.

"Seeing the dogs, seeing all my old friends, that's what I like," Kain said. "I had a dog, a boxer mix, but I had to get rid of him because I couldn't take care of him. That's why it is so great to see these dogs."

Vasey, who couldn't stop smiling as she watched the canines play with other campers, said she has a Chihuahua mix.

"We call him Taco because when he was little he looked like the dog in the Taco Bell commercial," she said.

Camp Challenge, the Florida Easter Seals camp for disabled children and adults on State Road 46, is just one of many stops for the W.A.G.S. dogs and their handlers.

W.A.G.S., which stands for "Working As God's Servants," is a volunteer, nonprofit therapy-dog group started by Connie Standley of Eustis in March 2001.

Volunteers and their dogs must take a six-week training course and pass a final exam before they are registered therapy dogs.

"It's every Thursday at Leesburg Regional Medical Center from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.," said Seymour Doctor of Eustis, one of 52 certified handlers with the group.

The training costs $70 and the money is used to register the dogs with Therapy Dog Inc. in Cheyenne, Wyo.

The Wyoming group has more than 7,000 dogs on its register in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

"Our main purpose is to make sure the dogs have been tested and qualify as therapy dogs so we can offer the insurance," said Carolyn Turbiville of Therapy Dog.

"We want the dogs to be obedient, friendly and able to handle all the noise and distractions they will face."

Turbiville said Standley is a certified tester and trains "thousands of dogs."

Each registered dog is covered with $3 million liability insurance, she said.

Doctor said his dog Hannah, a 9-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, gets as much out of the visits to area nursing homes and hospitals as the patients.

"She loves it," Doctor said. "It can be tiring for her. But she loves meeting the people and kissing the people."

He said the dogs "perform miracles."

Sandi Vaughan of Bushnell, the group's assistant trainer, agrees.

Particularly with Alzheimer's patients.

"What we have found is they have just forgotten their smiles," Vaughan said of visiting area nursing homes and hospitals.

"They [the patients] connect with the dog or the handler and they recognize something from their past."

It was Vaughan's father's battle with Alzheimer's that got her involved in therapy dogs.

"My dad hadn't responded to anything for months," she said. "Then they brought in a therapy dog and he smiled. They [the dogs)] just seem to get a reaction out of patients that people can't."

There can be much more than an emotional response, she said.

Research has found that people recovering from surgery tend to walk farther in rehabilitation if they are walking a dog, she said

"The same is true for someone recovering from shoulder or arm surgery," she said. "They tend to throw a ball for a dog for a longer period of time, and it helps them in rehab."

She added, the dogs even help children learn to read.

There are studies, she said, that show children will read more to dogs "because they know they won't be criticized if they make mistakes. They know the dogs can't read," Vaughan said.

That's why she and Rusty, her 21/2-year-old golden retriever she rescued from the animal shelter, make regular stops at the Sumter County Library.

"I take Rusty every Saturday to the library here in Bushnell," she said. "The kids love it."

Even with more than 50 dogs and handlers in the program now, there is always room for more, Vaughan said.

"We're getting calls all the time for us to bring our dogs out someplace," she said. "I know Rusty and I usually work six days a week."

Anyone interested in joining W.A.G.S. is welcome.

"You just need a friendly dog and the training," Doctor said. "Then the miracles start."