Trained To Serve
Updated: Jun 1, 2019
Written by Brooke Hutson Gibson | Photographed by Joe Worthem
In homes, schools, hospitals and even courtrooms, dogs and other animals recognize medical conditions, perform tasks, or just offer companionship and emotional support.
In December 2018 the world watched as Sully, President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, lay in front of his master’s flag-draped casket in his last act of loyalty to his master. The yellow Labrador retriever, provided by America’s VetDogs, had been at the president’s side offering comfort and companionship since Barbara, his wife of 73 years, died in April.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of service, emotional support and therapy dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines “service animals” as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Examples include guiding the blind, alerting the deaf, alerting a diabetic to dangerous blood sugar levels, or calming a person who has experienced trauma.
“Emotional support animals” are not required to perform any specific tasks; they simply offer affection and companionship. “Therapy animals,” primarily dogs, but sometimes also cats, horses, birds, pigs, llamas, alpacas, rabbits and guinea pigs, serve to relieve stress, anxiety and fear, while enhancing feelings of comfort, calm and well-being. A therapy dog’s owner or handler may bring the animal to meet individuals or groups of people. Some states have even begun using dogs to offer emotional support to children and others in situations where they must testify in court.
Scott Wilson has been a dog owner for 40 years. “My wife and I couldn’t afford a honeymoon when we got married, so instead we bought a dog,” Wilson joked.
After three decades at the University of Illinois, Wilson retired and he and his wife began researching the perfect hunting dogs for their retirement adventures. Their search ended in Oxford, where they settled with their new dogs, including a retired Labrador retriever sire, FTW Widgeon.
Widgeon was so incredibly calm, the Wilsons thought he would make a perfect service dog — and indeed he did. Widgeon earned his American Kennel Club Therapy Dog designation in less than a year. After volunteering for two years with Widgeon as a therapy team, Wilson became a licensed therapy team evaluator through Pet Partners, a nonprofit therapy animal organization. Then he became the service companion director at Oxford’s Wildrose Kennel.
Beyond that, Wilson volunteers his time taking another Labrador retriever therapy dog, Roxy, to help members of the Oxford-Lafayette community. On a bi-weekly basis, he visits residents of the memory care unit of The Blake at Oxford.
On one particular visit, peoples’ faces lit up when Wilson entered the gathering area. One resident began reminiscing while petting Roxy’s head, “I just love the dog! She’s just like the dog we had when we were kids. She’s just like her!”
For many of the residents, Wilson’s visits with Roxy are more than just friendly interactions with a calming dog.
“In the memory unit, visits are really human-to-human for me,” Wilson said. “I know several of these people don’t have a lot of visitors. The magic of the dogs is that they really relax people.”
Wilson sees that especially in his volunteering with Whitney Drewrey’s special education students at Lafayette Upper Elementary on Mondays. Drewrey, who was named Mississippi Teacher of the Year in 2018, works with 16 students, all of whom have severe cognitive disabilities.
“For kids with severe cognitive delay, dogs are good listeners and nonjudgmental,” Drewrey said. “They make eye contact and let the kids read to them.”
One girl in Drewrey’s class made such progress reading with Roxy that she jumped two grade levels in reading during the year.
“More than anything, it was her confidence that grew,” Drewrey said. “Now she’s comfortable reading out loud in front of her peers.”
In addition to being part of classroom learning, Roxy serves as an incentive for students to work hard in their tasks. Sometimes kids are rewarded by being invited to go for a walk with Roxy and Wilson. For accomplishing big goals, they get to take independent walks with Roxy.
Wilson and Roxy’s visits have also helped the children with communication.
“I’ve seen the dogs be a comfort to the students who have trouble communicating their needs,” Drewrey said. “Three autistic students who are not aware of others and don’t pay attention to their peers are aware of Roxy and have started interacting with her. It’s amazing to see the change — for them to interact with reality.”
Drewrey wants to expand her lessons and come up with more innovative ways to use therapy dogs in the classroom.
“Scott and Roxy have become a fixture in the classroom,” Drewrey said. “The pride and independence it brings [the students] is so neat and amazing.”
Sharon Stinson, an Oxford native, was diagnosed in 1995 at age 20 with Type 1 Diabetes. A student at Northwestern Community College, she felt sick and tired all the time. For several years after her diagnosis, Stinson had many ups and downs, hospitalizations, and diabetic seizures.
“My doctors had labeled me as a ‘brittle diabetic’ and it just got to the point where I couldn’t feel my highs and lows,” she said.
One day in 2009, Stinson, a stay-at-home mom and piano teacher, saw a diabetic alert dog in an issue of People magazine.
“I told my husband, ‘This is the answer!’” Stinson said. “I knew that I had to get one.”
To save money, the couple decided to learn how to train the pup themselves. It proved to be a challenge, but Stinson said “Gracie” was like an angel. Three years later, Gracie died and Stinson was devastated. Their church family raised money and even strangers who heard about her story donated so she could get a new dog.
In 2012, Maia, which means “brave warrior,” became Stinson’s new diabetic alert dog. It was an extensive process to train Maia to recognize Stinson’s saliva scent when her blood sugar levels are off. She also trained the dog to nudge her when her blood sugar is low and wave a paw when her blood sugar is high.
“Having an alert dog has given me peace of mind,” Stinson said. “It lowered my anxiety about diabetes. [Maia] has helped me in my fight. I’m just so thankful for her.”
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