The Power of Pups

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By Kristina Domitrovich
Photos by Lindsay Pace

When the world feels overwhelmingly dark, if we’re lucky, we can turn to our favorite pals to get us through, our four-legged friends. Without fail, no matter what type of day was had, dogs will be there, tail wags and kisses abound; their love is unlimited, and there’s nothing quite so comforting. Needless to say, these animals can be particularly comforting in a year like 2020, which is why the people-and-pup teams at Love on a Leash of Northeast Mississippi (previously referred to as Comfort Creatures) have been hard at work.

The organization currently has 14 teams (a team is made up of a human and a dog), who have all gone through proper training and certifications. Each team has to pass the American Kennel Club’s Good Canine Citizen training program, and has to be a registered therapy dog, which requires 10 supervised visits with other registered therapy dog teams. The organization helps teams earn their certifications.

Stacey Stokes and her 10-year-old terrier Lemme have been involved since the spring of 2019. Stokes, the organization’s new president, says to be a good therapy dog, a dog needs to get along with others, follow simple commands and have “an overall good demeanor.” Of course, the dog’s handler needs to be a good fit, too.

Lemme, Stokes’ dog.

Stokes was a physical therapist for 29 years before retiring, and she said she’s seen first-hand the power of animal interactions, as she has experience with equine-assisted therapy.

“I had previously done hippotherapy or therapeutic riding using horseback and saw how therapeutic that was,” she said. “I just knew how comforting it could be, and I’ve always loved working with other people and helping other people, and this was just a perfect opportunity for me to use Lemme as my therapy dog and to get her certified.”

Stokes and Lemme do three visits each week. For Stokes and Lemme, they have found what works best for them, and they stick to hospice and retirement centers.

“I really feel like God put me in the position I’m in today,” she said. “I feel like I’m blessed more than (the people we visit) are. I really do. It’s just a joy to be able to give back to the community, and give back to some of these elderly people that may not have that much family contact, we’re like family to them. This has been a pure joy. I wish I could go every day.”

 


 

Stokes also cares for her 93-year-old mother at home. For her, Lemme’s visits to the elderly are crucial because “I’ve seen (my mother’s) dog comfort her more than you know, I mean I see how it does on a personal level.”

As a part of the organization’s training, Stokes has supervised other teams acquiring their therapy dog team certification. One of those teams was Dave Bundy and his Maltese-Yorkie mix dog, Bueller (named after the movie character, Ferris Bueller from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). After earning their certification, the Bundy-Bueller team decided to team up with Stokes and Lemme, so the four often go on visits together. Bueller is a trick dog who can do card tricks, and Lemme can do tricks like walking on her hind legs.

“I can have (Lemme) sit on her back legs like a kangaroo, and then I can have her walk across the floor on her hind legs or hop,” she said. “That just thrills them, no matter how many times they see it, it thrills those men and women.”

 

Bueller (left) and Lemme are two Love on a Leash therapy dogs.

Lemme and Bueller are small enough that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stokes and Bundy have been able to hold the dogs up to windows for window visits. Stokes said Lemme doesn’t understand the barrier, but she’s still excited to see everyone. Some other teams with the organization are a bit too big for window visits though, like Jim Missett and his 80-pound Doberman, Tip.

Missett and Tip go to nursing homes too, along with hospitals. The two got involved in Love on a Leash about two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, Missett said he’s convinced Tip knows what people need, sometimes better than the people themselves. Missett saw this one day while he and Tip were on a visit, where a gentleman there said he would not like to see Tip, because he had been bitten by a Doberman when he was young. When they’re on visits, those in the facility can decide whether or not they would like to interact with the therapy dogs, and that wish is respected; but Tip knew he could win this man’s heart.

“Tip was standing there with me, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught him moving sideways towards this gentleman, and with his head turned away so that he wasn’t intimidating or looking aggressive at all,” he said. “Tip moved up to him, and the gentleman sort of reached out and started petting him. I’d like to say that I trained Tip to do that, but I didn’t, that was all on his own.”

This isn’t the only time Missett has witnessed Tip more or less find someone who needed some dog time. Once, Missett was outside of Lowe’s, waiting on his wife to return to the car, and he was standing in the parking lot with Tip. He said countless people walked by, and Tip didn’t pay them any attention.

“Tip all of a sudden, starts out and goes over to this woman who’s walking past, and turns out that she (leaned down to him) and said, ‘Oh, how did you know that I needed a fix?’” he said. “So he seems to be somewhat intuitive about it. Maybe I’m putting too much on it, but that’s the way it seems, because he didn’t make an effort to go up to anyone else until she came by.”

Stokes helps a resident pet Lemme.

Outside of the patients that the teams go visit, the staff at the facilities get just as much from the visits as the patients, and sometimes maybe even more.

“They need a little relief from their day as well,” Missett said.

Stokes said when they visit a hospice center, Lemme and Bueller know their first stop before even seeing any patients.

“They head straight to the kitchen because they know they’re going to get a piece of bacon from the staff,” she laughed. “The staff loves them so much.”

Outside of nursing and hospice centers, other teams visit hospitals, shelters, even schools, where some Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) will listen as children read to them, to help develop their reading and communication skills.

Stokes and Missett both agreed that they get almost just as much out of being part of a therapy dog team as those who get to interact with their dogs.

“I’ve met more friends through doing this because I consider them friends and family,” Stokes said. “They just grow near and dear to our hearts.”

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