Giving Back Through Dogs 6

Lean on Four-Legged Best Friends During Holidays

Beth Freeman is passionate about paying it forward. Her Saint Bernard therapy dog, Sasha, agrees and lives by that mantra as well. This devoted duo visits people of all ages in hospitals, long-term care facilities and at special events—people who need unconditional acceptance, hairy hugs and a few slobbers along the way.

Sasha and Beth are part of the TOUCH (Therapy of Unique Canine Helpers) program managed by St. Louis-based Support Dogs Inc., a nonprofit group that connects dogs with people through 600-plus volunteers who raise puppies, train service dogs and certify their personal dogs to visit public places to assist with people’s physical or mental challenges, children’s reading, health-related situations or the elderly who simply can’t have dogs themselves.

SDI-trained dogs include mobility service dogs, hearing dogs and dogs to assist with medical issues. SDI dogs also work in courthouses with victims who’ve been mentally, physically or sexually abused.

Beth says her journey in dog therapy started a few years ago when her teenage son ended up in St. John’s Mercy Hospital with a ruptured appendix.

“He had two surgeries over 10 days and almost died,” she says. “But one thing that cheered him up and got him emotionally ready for the second surgery was a visit from a therapy dog. In fact, he wouldn’t go into the second surgery without seeing the dog.”

At the time, Beth had three dogs of her own, and her son made her promise she would look into having Sasha become a therapy canine.

She says she didn’t know the dog who visited her son was with SDI but eventually found the group. Sasha passed the organization’s temperament test and even went through more months of training to be able to participate in acute care for children.

Beth enjoys taking Sasha to the annual Milk & Cookies with Santa event for children with autism at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel St. Louis in Chesterfield, which is hosted by Easterseals Midwest.

“Events can be so loud for children, and they really benefit from getting Sasha’s help,” she says.

Sasha and Beth also visit hospitals during Christmastime, often decked out in matching Santa outfits or elf hats. They take the TOUCH program into CenterPointe Hospital and Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital, too.

“Kids are never afraid of Sasha, who’s always been this gentle giant,” Beth says. “And many adults just break down crying on her.”

Beth says she tells people to hug and love on Sasha as long as they want.

“Hugging a dog can be such a healing thing,” she says. “It lowers people’s blood pressure and decreases anxiety, not to mention that dogs can bring out the interactions from people that they don’t feel comfortable sharing with another person.”

She says one memory stands out after she witnessed a boy who had been badly injured in an auto accident utter the word “dog” when he saw Sasha. She discovered that was the first word the boy had whispered in a month, after the accident. Two weeks later, she says the boy could say Sasha’s name during visits.

When Sasha participates in the SDI Paws for Reading program in classrooms or libraries, Beth says Sasha gets lots of thank you letters.

“Sasha’s very well-known, ” she says. “It’s all about Sasha when we go anywhere!”

Now 8 years old, Sasha was rescued by Beth from a puppy mill. She is a smaller Saint Bernard, who leans on everyone as her way of hugging.

Another example of Sasha’s beneficial outreach is a boy who was nonrespondent in his physical therapy sessions for his recovering legs. He did enjoy petting Sasha, so one day Beth suggested the boy take Sasha’s leash and walk her through his therapy. She didn’t know why surrounding nurses were crying at first until she learned that was the first time the boy had moved on his own power during therapy.

Even young infants with tracheotomies lying in hospital beds kick their feet rapidly and enthusiastically when they spot Sasha.

“I’m grateful to have a dog that can serve other people. We are blessed,” says Beth, who also is a life coach.

“I love animals and supporting people. Making a difference in someone’s life makes me realize just how much these therapy dogs help people.”

Beth says Sasha knows exactly where there are hurting people when they enter places, and sometimes she has to pull her back.

“She’s very in tune, and will head straight to certain rooms,” she says. “She smells and knows who needs her most.”