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Canine on the Move: The Therapy Dog
06/27/2008 - By Teja Anderson
“I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love.  For me they are the role model for being alive.”These were the words of Gilda Radner, Emmy Award-winning comedienne and actress, whose death at 42 of ovarian cancer helped increase public awareness of that disease and the need for earlier detection and treatment. Gilda would have loved Tilly. Tilly is the faithful companion of Alison Silver (an art director for this magazine), and she is a therapy dog. Tilly, whose full name is Van Etten’s Waltzing Matilda, spends her weekdays, and often weekends, hanging out with children of all ages who need her peaceful, gentle, and non-judgmental presence while they are facing the discomforts of chemotherapy, blood transfusions, or other hospital treatments. Tilly also spends time at the School For Children in Eatontown, where she works with special needs children at all levels, teaching them about appropriate touch. When at times they grab her face or fur too roughly she does not bite, but waits patiently for them to release her, somehow knowing that it was not done intentionally.
Alison hoped that Tilly would make a good therapy dog; her first Bulldog had not had the right temperament, and ever since she had seen a program about therapy dogs on “Animal Planet” she knew it was something she wanted to get involved with. So she was delighted when Derek Haight, the trainer at Big Tail Waggin’ in Red Bank, assessed Tilly at 4 months old and thought she had excellent potential. After months of extensive training at her owner’s cost, Tilly was ready to be evaluated by Therapy Dogs International in Flanders, NJ. She passed with flying colors and was ready for immediate placement. Although therapy dogs can be used in many helpful ways – in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools – Alison knew that she wanted the two of them to work in pediatrics.
I tagged along with Tilly on one of her days of rounds at The Valerie Fund’s Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Department at The Children’s Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center. With pink collar and leash, Tilly was set to go with her very own security badge. The first child to see her, 8-year-old Sabrina, who was there for blood tests, got down on the floor next to Tilly, threw her arms around her and kissed her repeatedly, remarking on her unusual eyes – one brown and the other light blue. She kept popping back into the room for more hugs and kisses over the next half hour. Riley, 4, was in the next room, hooked up to an IV and not happy. But he brightened up for Tilly, smiling broadly. His mother confided that he hates to have doctors touching him, and that when Tilly sits up on the examining table with him it keeps him calm. Another little girl in the hallway leaves an attempt to break her 20-minute hula hooping record to rush over to Tilly for pats.
In the “Frequent Flier” ward, where kids are so sick that they keep coming back (or seldom leave), Tilly seems the most at home, jumping clumsily up on to the bed of 12-year-old Jake. “Her butt looks like a face,” Jake jokes, but it hurts him too much to laugh. “Tilly is the best dog in the world; she likes to sleep with me,” he says softly. His mother tells me that they had been running out of options getting Jake through the transfusions, chemo, and testing, but with Tilly’s arrival things got easier. Finally, we go to 7-year-old Rey. Tilly climbs up on the bed beside him and watches him play video games. He takes time out to pat her between each round, grinning widely. When it’s time for his chemo I take my leave.
Of course, it takes a special person to be the handler of a therapy dog, and Alison is just such a person, delighting in Tilly’s success with the kids. “There was this one little girl at the School For Children who has Rett syndrome who hadn’t ever spoken; after 8 months of hanging out with Tilly, one day she said her name – Tilly – twice, and she patted her!” Alison says, glowing, “You get back so much more than you put into it. The bonds that Tilly and I have created with these children and their families are just amazing.” These children are lucky indeed that Alison and Tilly have waltzed into their lives.
“You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us.”
–Robert Louis Stevenson
Favorite restaurant: Three Dog Bakery
Favorite Song : Bella Notte, from Lady and the Tramp
Favorite Movie: 101 Dalmations
Pet peeve: getting my wrinkles cleaned
Three people you would like to have dinner with: I love everyone, but if it means more food for me, then no one!
For more information about Therapy Dogs International or how to become a therapy dog and handler team, please visit www.tdi-dog.org or call (973) 252-9800.
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