If you are one of the millions of dog owners living in the U.S., then you know that these furry companions share a very special place in our homes and hearts. However, for millions of Americans living with a disability, these four-legged friends provide not only companionship but an invaluable service to their owners. It is important to understand that service dogs are not pets, they are highly trained to assist with specific disabilities, ranging from a physical disability to an intellectual disability and everything in between. These service animals perform specified tasks to provide their owner the ability to interact with the world in ways that would otherwise be impossible or even dangerous.
With the proper training, service dogs can come in all shapes and sizes. However, Retrievers rank number one in most commonly trained canine due to their gentle nature, intelligence, and trainability. This is true for Blessed. Blessed was trained as a service dog, by Canine Support Teams, to assist in therapy sessions at Inland Regional Center’s (IRC) Pediatric Clinic. Blessed also interacts with adult clients in the equipment clinic and during home visits conducted by her owner, IRCs Occupational Therapist (OT), Annette Richardson.
Annette and Blessed have a strong 12 year history of working and playing together. When Annette first stepped into her role as IRC’s OT, she knew she had to find a way to accurately assess her clients’ needs. “In my role at IRC, I have one chance to figure out how to best help a family,” Annette explains, “families are often worried. Kids see clinic as a scary place. We use techniques and tools to overcome these fears, but I truly believed that we could use a dog to make a big difference in the clinic”. Blessed immerses herself into the experience and allows the client to set the tone of the interaction. Annette shared, “Blessed used to pull a merry-go-round, support little ones on our platform swing, or go through little obstacle courses, looking back to see if the kids were following”. Blessed became an important asset to the Pediatric Clinic and Annette soon realized what a huge difference Blessed was making in her clients and stated that “instead of being afraid, kids were intrigued. They forgot to be afraid.” Annette also admits to using Blessed to get the more hesitant children to participate by using playtime with Blessed as a reward, which – let’s admit – works for adults too.
On top of being one of IRCs exemplary employees, Blessed also offers therapeutic benefits to IRC staff in need of emotional support. Blessed is great at reading people and adjusting to their energy to create a safe and welcoming environment. Annette recalls the aftermath of the shooting that took place at IRC in 2015 and how Blessed helped many of the victims by simply being present. “After the shooting at IRC, employees would come into my office and just sit and pet Blessed,” Annette said, “they weren’t there to see me. It was she they wanted to see.” Dogs can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, ease loneliness, and encourage playfulness by simply being around them. Without realizing, Blessed was doing an invaluable service to the staff who came to see her after the horrific events that took place 5 years ago. Annette also recalls an event in which a dear friend of hers had just recently lost her brother. During one of her daily walks with Blessed, before Annette even realized it was her friend across the lobby, Blessed ran to meet her and laid down at her feet, as her way of saying “I’m here for you”. Remembering that moment, Annette shared, “we all just sat on the floor for a while, saying nothing, and just being in the moment. Blessed is really good at being in the moment.”
Unlike pets, service animals have protected access to just about anywhere their owners go. How great would it be if everyone could have a service animal to take to the movie theater, restaurants, doctor appointments, etc.? The reality is, not just anyone qualifies for a service animal, and if you do, you should know that service animals are a huge responsibility. Annette reminds us that “these animals are around people full-time from the time they are born, many have an insatiable work ethic, and so their needs are different than that of a pet. A service dog may be the PERFECT support for you or someone you love, but the work, commitment, and consistency required needs to be carefully considered.”
To learn more about Blessed, check out this video created by Annette, highlighting all the work she has been doing throughout the community from her young puppy days until now: Blessed, IRC Therapy Dog – YouTube
We love to hear from our community! If you have a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal and would like to share your story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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