Metro Detroit dogs connect with people, ease stress
DETROIT — Because of Henry — a gentlemanly, chocolate-and-white Portuguese water dog — once-silent autistic students at Novi High School now have a voice.
A Doberman pinscher named Tuesday is credited with helping 11 former servicemembers graduate last week from Redford Township District Court's first Veterans Court. And Deacon — a golden retriever therapy dog that visits patients at Crittenton Hospital in Rochester and goes to libraries to encourage kids to read out loud — is this year's poster dog for the Detroit Kennel Club dog shows, scheduled for March 2-3 at Cobo Center.
The poster "honors all therapy dogs and the contributions they make to the lives and well being of those they visit," says the club's website.
Michigan is among a growing number of states where dogs are moving into courts, schools, prisons and juvenile facilities on the heels of new research that shows the emotional and physical benefits of dog-person contact, particularly for people in pain or in trouble.
Studies show dogs — and cats, too — can reduce stress. A study in the American Journal of Cardiology found pets can be linked to the heart's ability to adapt to stressful events. And the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that pets provide the same emotional benefits as human relationships.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December, Lutheran Church Charities sent 10 support dogs to help the grieving community of Newtown, Conn.
At Novi High, Henry's 1-year birthday earlier this month was cause for celebration — and a learning opportunity for living skills. Special-needs students organized a party, sent out invitations, went shopping for party decorations and baked a cake for him.
Henry has brought instant serenity to kids with emotional disorders challenged by a hectic school environment. When special-needs students walk Henry through the halls, his presence creates moments of social interaction that they might not experience otherwise, as other students stop to pet and greet the dog.
"Kids can be having a screaming temper tantrum, and he lies down next to them and they become calm," said Missy Bean of Huntington Woods, the school social worker who owns Henry. "It's beyond miraculous."
Kids who rarely uttered a word now tell the therapy dog to sit and stand. Or in the words of Zach Hanson, 18: "Henry, go away."
"Some of our students who are non-verbal or talk very minimally talk more to Henry than they do to people," said Allison Larson, the school's speech pathologist.
Henry was trained by Jim Lessenberry of Animal Learning Systems, who also helped integrate Henry into the school.
"It's made a difference for every single kid in the room," said Jodie Sikaitis, who teaches special-needs students and wasn't a dog fan before Henry. "He's taught everybody, including myself, how important it is to have an animal in your life."
Student Marcus Antolec, 15, visits the school's counseling center to rub Henry's belly or to take him for walks.
"When I feel sad, I see Henry and feel better," Marcus said. "He's one of my best friends."
Lisa Antolec, Marcus' mother, said her son's attention span and focus at school has improved because of Henry.
When Marcus is overly anxious about a test, he may be allowed to take it in a room with Henry nearby to calm him, his mother said.
"As soon as Marcus is around any animal, no matter how upset he is, he calms right down," Lisa Antolec said. "He eventually wants to become a zookeeper. It's his tie to calmness."
At Veterans Court in Redford Township, therapy dogs are a tie to pride and honor.
The Dobermans are among the first dogs in the country to minister to veterans who find themselves in trouble with the court system.
Kevin Fowler returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006 stressed, angry and depressed. The former U.S. Army sergeant had trouble adjusting — his life on the battlefield was too traumatic to leave behind.
He found his way with the help of 10 other troubled vets and a 60-pound Doberman named Tuesday. Fowler, 43, was assigned to the court after a disorderly conduct arrest in 2011 and attended the program for a year, meeting monthly with Tuesday, his fellow vets, the judge and court personnel.
He was among the former servicemen to graduate last week — and Tuesday, 7, was there for the celebration, wearing a patriotic red, white and blue beaded collar.
"Tuesday has a way of calming everybody down," Fowler said. "Look, we've got guys who are Navy, Marines, Army. We wouldn't necessarily be talking to each other, but with Tuesday, those walls came down. She gave us a focus, a conversation starter."
Tuesday and the eight other dogs working in Michigan courts are part of the Canine Advocacy Program (CAP) started by Dan Cojanu, the former director of Oakland County's Victim Services Section.
In addition to Redford Township, dogs are working in courts in Novi, Bay County and Ionia. Cojanu is training two more dogs — a Dalmatian and a Newfoundland — to be added to Ann Arbor's new veterans court.
CAP's first dog, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Amos, made his debut before Oakland County Circuit Judge Joan Young in 2010.
Two young girls were giving testimony about their parents' contentious divorce, and Young was looking for a way to comfort them.
Amos sat quietly at their feet as each girl testified and then escorted them out of the courtroom for a little playtime.
"It was very unpleasant testimony, and I just thought they would be more comfortable with Amos," Young said.
Amos also spends time at Oakland County Children's Village, a juvenile facility for troubled and abused children, as well as those incarcerated.
"When kids see Amos for the first time, they have something positive to focus on," Cojanu said. "A lot of this stuff is scary, but that fear seems to melt away as soon as they see him."
Some of the dogs that participate are donated by the Leader Dogs for the Blind, and they generally live with their trainers.
In Tuesday's case, her owner, Marilyn Minnino, has had her since she was a puppy and enrolled her in training programs that taught her to be a support dog. Tuesday also visits convalescence homes.
"She was sweet from the beginning," Minnino said.