Helping Idaho Dogs: Blaze and Bernie
Started in 2010 as an all-volunteer nonprofit, Helping Idaho Dogs has evolved to offer three main programs: Humane education, Helping People and Educational Events. Humane education is a valuable program where they teach children about dog safety, dog body language and also about compassion and being respectful and kind to animals. Its emphasis is on learning how to interact with animals, especially stranger animals or attack animals that might be on the defensive or in attack mode. Students are taught how to recognize a happy dog versus a dog that is questionable or angry.
According to the Helping Idaho Dogs website, around 4.5 million dog bites are reported every year, and of that, 37% are children ages 5-9, and 77% of dog bites come from the family or familiar dog like a neighbor. The real numbers are likely to be much higher, though, because those figures are based on attacks that are actually reported. While children are among the highest number of dog bites, seniors are the second-highest as they too probably do not know how to look at a dog's ears, back and tail for the signs.
Volunteers often attend community events that increase public awareness. Carol Jensen, the assistant director, is in charge of events and keeps their volunteers busy.
“We do a lot of different events," Carol says. "We do camp Rainbow Gold as well as camp Hodia next week. And there’s reading with the children. Just this last week, we did what we call AAC, which is Advancing Adventures and Communication. It is an event that's sponsored by St. Luke's. They have a very big camp for children in need, they are children that use special machines to talk speech.”
“So we do that every year," executive director of Helping Idaho Dogs, Darcel Pecyna, adds. "And there are quite a few different events that we do. We get involved in the community, and we want to help support the other nonprofits that are also trying to help the community.”
The other main function of Helping Idaho Dogs is their therapy dog teams. They take requests from within the community, which are different locations such as hospice centers, assisted living facilities, libraries and schools.
“We always visit any new location and make sure it's safe for our volunteers," Darcel says. "Currently, we have 17 certified teams and are always looking for more. We do intensive training with our volunteers when someone joins Helping Idaho Dogs as a therapy dog team. We have our own process that they have to go through, and that's actually posted on the website. It's a series of training, observations, evaluations and recommendations."
The organization has created its own astringent process to make certain that both the therapy teams and the recipients will get the most out of the interactions.
“We don't train on the basic skills that a dog needs; we train them in what a therapy dog needs to do and how to act and to also find out if they're a good fit because it's extremely important that they're a good match."
"And it's not just the dog—it's the owner and the dog. Sometimes an owner has their heart set on going to a location, but their dog is bored. So we try to figure out what situations the team will do best in. We point out to our volunteers whether their dogs are enjoying it or not. There are a lot of little things that we share with the teams and providing that kind of training for them.”
It’s no small feat to become a therapy dog team. To start, volunteers are required to attend an orientation meeting where they are given the outline of requirements to further qualify. Volunteers also submit to fingerprinting as well as state and federal background checks.
“Their work will put them in direct contact with fragile, vulnerable people, so that is an important step in the process,” Darcel says.
Once approved, the hard work begins. Training includes teaching the dog to be mindful of things like not leaning against someone or knocking into a person in the hall. They undergo multiple evaluations and are required to pass the canine good citizen test and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs test.
After all the tests have been passed, the final stretch of training is in the field. The first three times, the new team will shadow an experienced team. This is where they will work with things like how to walk with their dog in the halls and how to stay out of the way of the gurneys and chairs. The result is well-trained teams that are ready to provide support and comfort to those in need.
“Volunteering as a therapy dog team is a very heartwarming experience. You give back to the community, you help people in need and the dog gets to experience that. But mainly you're there for that person. You're not there to have conversation all afternoon with the person. You're there for them to build the relationship with your dog so they can relax and they can have that comfort and everything from the unconditional love.”
“Another thing that I'd like to point out in relation to Humane Education," Darcel concludes, "is that in the number of dog bites that happen to children, it's from their dog or a friend’s dog. It's from a dog they know. People are surprised by that. If they can learn the dog body language, then the dogs will be able to remain in their forever homes, and they will have a stronger relationship. And that's what we're all about."
Security and Comfort from Rocky
With fifteen years of experience as a correctional officer and a certified canine master, Greg Tank found the right fit teaming up with Rocky, a 3 1/2-year-old Boxer, to form a unique security team at St. Luke’s Hospital.
Rocky is a tracking dog who is also trained to deescalate a potentially volatile situation and search the premises for dangerous contraband. He has not only passed the Good Citizen Canine test but is also a certified explosive detection dog and has received advanced obedience training.
Despite all of his security training, Greg emphasizes that at the hospital he also receives many "Rocky Requests." Often those requests are for relieving tension and anxiety in patients and providing grief relief to hospital workers. Rocky simply delivers those requests by way of snuggles and calming comfort.
“He is known to take a screaming and threatening situation, and just by his presence and experience, he is able to diffuse the situation without having to attack—which is a safer resolution for the patients and the staff," says Greg.