The Joy of Dog Fostering for Canine Assistants
Canine Assistants teaches dogs to help people with a myriad of needs. One of the ways these hero dogs help is by providing therapy to patients, their families and hospital staff members in Atlanta.
In addition to the skills of the hairy helpers, the program relies on foster families who help guide the therapy dogs in training. Jonna Giles has been fostering Canine Assistants dogs for six years. Two of the foster dogs she's housed are now full-time facility dogs at children's hospitals.
Giles shares what it's like to be a Canine Assistants foster family:
We bet all of your dogs have been special, but can you tell us about one special dog that did something great on a visit?
Giles: I visit the inpatient and outpatient cancer units at [a children's hospital] in Atlanta. In those units the kids, parents and staff all really benefit from some puppy love, and I feel that every time I go I am helping several folks have a better day. One time, I had a pup with me who was not my foster, but who is now a facility dog at another hospital. There was a mother with a teenage daughter who had obviously gotten some very bad news. The girl was in a wheelchair and the mother was sitting on the ground beside her. They were both crying. The dog that I had with me went right up to the mother and put her front paws on the mother's shoulders and gave her a hug. The mother wrapped her arms around the dog and started sobbing. They stayed like that for several moments. It was one of the most touching moments I have ever seen.
How do you help dogs get accustomed to your home and family?
Giles: Normally when you foster, you start bringing the pups home when they are about eight weeks old. They are usually only at your home a few days at a time. When they are there, they are exposed to all sorts of household sights and sounds. If you have other pets or children, they have to learn to get along with them as well. Potty training is obviously a thing we work on when we have them at home.
How do you know which patients will be receptive to the dogs?
Giles: We always ask before taking a dog into a patient's room. Some patients aren't used to dogs and don't want a visit, or sometimes the patient will be sleeping or just not feel up to the visit. In one instance, the patient loved the dog that I had with me, but her grandmother was afraid of dogs and had never actually petted a dog. By the time I left, the grandmother was in love and didn't want to stop petting the dog.
What kinds of things do the patients enjoy doing with the dogs?
Giles: At the children's hospital I visit, most of the patients just love on the pups. Sometimes they will ask to give them treats, but mostly they just love on them. Some will pet them while the dog is on the floor, some will have the dog raise up on the bed and some will have the dog get all of the way up on the bed and snuggle with them. Sometimes the staff will have the pup get up on the bed and snuggle with the patient while a procedure is being done.
I also visit the rehab unit at another hospital. This unit is all adult patients, usually elderly, who have had strokes, accidents, surgeries, etc. Here the dogs are used a bit differently. Sometimes they will work on balance by standing up and petting the dog. They will brush the dogs when working on a certain hand or arm. Sometimes they will play fetch with the dog as well to work on balance/standing or rehabbing an arm/shoulder.
What are your responsibilities as a foster parent?
Giles: As a foster parent, you are responsible for exposing your foster pup to as many different things as possible. You take them to all sorts of public places such as grocery stores, department stores, shopping malls, movies, restaurants, etc. You want to get them used to going anywhere. A big thing is to get them used to being bathed. We bathe and dry them every time we pick them up from the farm. Getting them used to getting in and out of the car is a big deal as well. Other volunteers can also take your foster on outings. You are not the only volunteer that works with them.
Is it hard to say goodbye when they leave for their forever family?
Giles: It is heartbreaking every time you have to say goodbye, but you know going into it that you are going to have to say goodbye one day. It is so wonderful seeing your foster with their recipient and knowing the difference that they will be making in that person's life for years to come. As for the facility dogs, you know they are helping many different people every day.