When Marcia Bell snaps on the special blue leash around Amber’s neck, the energetic, playful English shepherd quickly transitions into her calmer, mellower personality. Amber knows it’s time to “go to work” as a therapy dog.
For the past eight months, Marcia and Amber have gone to Rise’s Data Ability and Creative Partnerships North program in Crystal one morning a month to visit people who quietly, but excitedly wait for their turn with the friendly pooch. Amber patiently lets them stroke her beautiful coat while she nuzzles their hands looking for an extra treat and listens intently to them as they talk to her.
“Many years ago, I would bring our two Shelties with me when I visited my mother-in-law in a nursing home and was asked to visit another resident who normally was unresponsive,” said Marcia. “She reached down to pet my dog and I was struck by the positive effect that short visit made to both the resident and his daughter.”
When Marcia retired as a medical technologist from Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, she had time to commit to training Amber as a therapy dog. They began visiting people to bring comfort and smiles in a variety of settings.
She and Amber, who is six years old, graduated from an eight-week therapy training course with Cloud 9 Dog Training as well as an eight-hour online course through Pet Partners. Amber and Marcia learned how to handle many different scenarios which included interacting with people in wheelchairs, places with lots of noise, and crowds.
Both the handler and dog must pass the rigorous training. “Amber and I were evaluated as a team on 20 competencies,” said Marcia. “I was nervous when I found out that sometimes the dog can pass, but the handler doesn’t; I was happy that we both did fine.”
Amber and Marcia are registered with Pet Partners, a national registry for therapy animals, and belong to North Star Therapy Animals, a nonprofit organization which matches volunteer teams with needs in the community. In addition to Rise, the duo also volunteer their time at Methodist Hospital visiting patients and at local colleges connecting with stressed students.
Marcia has been around dogs all her life and says at first she didn’t realize what a positive effect they can have on people who are feeling lonely or stressed, miss their own pets, or who love animals and may not have the opportunity to be around them anymore.
“People will tell me after spending time with Amber, ‘I feel so much better,’ ‘This made my day’ or ‘I really needed that,’” Marcia noted. “I think Amber can detect that in people and just seems to know what to give them — although it’s a pretty good exchange for her, too, as she loves to roll onto her back and let the attention begin. Visiting at Rise has given Amber and me the opportunity to interact with people who are not always able to come to her level. It has made us look for new ways to make the visit rewarding for all of us, like having a stool for Amber to stand on so people can reach and touch her. I really enjoy the environment and the staff at Rise and look forward to our monthly visits.”
“It’s definitely a day-brightener when Marcia and Amber come to visit us,” said Data Ability Service Team Leader Sarah Lovelace. “People really enjoy the attention Amber gives them and love to pet her or give her a treat. She puts a smile on everyone’s face just by showing up! We really appreciate Marcia’s generous time.”
When her time is up at Rise, Amber gets a special doggy ice cream treat which she loves. Tuckered out from her visit, Marcia says she usually sleeps all the way home to Minneapolis. When they get there, the shepherd dog’s natural instincts kick in and she keeps track of everyone in the house, as well as every neighborhood person and dog who walk by.
The demand for therapy animals has increased, including dogs, cats, bunnies and guinea pigs, so more teams are always welcome. If you are interested in learning more about how you can participate, you check out these websites: petpartners.org or northstartherapyanimals.org.