By Alicia Wanek
Dogs are called “man’s best friend” because they are loyal, intuitive, friendly, and fun to hang out with. Michelle Altom and other human members of the teams with Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) have seen the amazing way the canines connect with people, and she loves seeing how her golden retriever Walter is making a difference with her students. “A dog can bring people together,” Michelle says, and when she’s had a chance to take him with her to work at Plano West Senior High School, she’s seen Walter break down barriers and bring lots of smiles.
Michelle works as a high school counselor, so she’s always trying to find a way to connect with students. In a previous position, she’d had the opportunity to see how pets could play a part in generating productive conversation with her clients, so she’s been slowly getting approval to bring Walter to work as part of special events like Mental Health Awareness Week or to visit the veterinary medicine classes. “It’s amazing to see how kids who were cautious or hesitant to talk to me open up when they see the dog,” she says. She’s hopeful that there will be more opportunities in the future for Walter to interact with the students.
Walter is no ordinary pooch. This five-year-old cutie loves to perform tricks, go swimming, and play with any kind of ball, but he also knows how to follow commands and has gone through the process to be certified through ATD. This national organization has strict regulations and a process that dogs and their owners must go through before they can go out on visits. Kim Cameron, a tester/observer with the group says the dogs must be able to demonstrate a variety of skills on supervised visits before they’re ready to go out alone, including tolerating being touched all over nose to tail, walking with a loose leash, and getting along with other dogs, among others.
In North Texas, Heart of Texas Therapy Dogs was established as a means of facilitating the local visits among certified dogs in the area. School districts from all over are reaching out to request dogs to visit their campuses, so Michelle is hopeful that Plano ISD regulations will allow Walter to visit her own campus more often. “We’ve seen such an increase in student anxiety and depression,” she says, and she really believes the benefits Walter and the dogs could provide to the social-emotional learning environment are innumerable. “Walter can change the dynamic between people, change the dynamic in the classroom, and change the way the students communicate,” according to Michelle.
Once dogs have been certified, they are eligible to go out on visits to any number of facilities and organizations, from libraries to college campuses, rehab facilities to nursing homes. One of Kim’s most touching stories was seeing how a woman in rehabilitation, who had been nonverbal for over a month, started talking for the first time when Kim came in with her own Great Dane. “For every group and every dog the mission is different,” Kim says. The dogs may perform tricks to engage children, or smaller dogs may just sit in someone’s lap to offer comfort. After the police shootings in Dallas in 2016, the organization took some of the dogs to the police station. Kim believes that because the dogs are so non-judgmental, they were just a calming influence and offered a sense of security as the officers experienced their grief.
The objective of ATD is to form a network of caring individuals and their special dogs who are willing to share smiles and joy with people, young and old alike. Kim’s dogs have been used as a pillow while a young child practices reading, and she’s seen the entire countenance change in a patient with advanced-stage dementia. These volunteers are sharing their four-legged best friends with the community, and dogs like Walter are bringing a lot of happiness with them.