Wookiee and Millie approach their work at Warm Hearth Village each Wednesday morning as eager professionals, eyes bright and tails wagging.
At the front door, Millie, a black Labrador, jumps up almost twice her height to hit the door opener button with her right paw. Wookiee, a very social Briard, rushes forward to begin schmoozing in the lobby. Millie stands alert, waiting for her handler’s command.
Tiffany Moeltner is training the two dogs for very different roles, but both are honing their skills while enhancing the lives of the residents of Warm Hearth’s Kroontje Center. When either dog trots into a room, faces that seemed permanently etched in frowns often relax into smiles.
Wookiee, the therapy dog, makes new friends on every visit. He accepts hugs and kisses of varying intensities with equanimity. If someone acknowledges Wookiee, he’s ready to return the love. Today he sits eye-level with J.B. Jones while the retired professor reminisces about dogs he has trained. Jones’ goal is to improve his strength and balance enough to take Wookiee for a walk.
“Wookiee was a rescue from the Humane Society. When I saw how much he loves people and how gentle he is, I knew I had to train him as a therapy dog,” Moeltner said.
Millie is a Saint Francis service dog in training. Moeltner is teaching her to be “all business” around people as well as to perform tasks. One of the important things Millie is learning at Warm Hearth is not to respond to people other than her owner.
This is important; a dog that loses focus misses cues from his owner. Service dogs trained to detect seizures or low blood sugar must concentrate on their human’s condition second by second. Missed signals could have dire consequences.
At Warm Hearth, Millie doesn’t have a designated patient. She opens doors, fetches objects and drags large baskets or boxes out of the main thoroughfare, and responds to 40 spoken commands.
She also helps with physical therapy sessions, retrieving bean bags the patients throw and giving them extra motivation to exercise their arms. Millie also throws her weight into an arm-strengthening exercise with a tug rope, maintaining a steady, gentle tug for patients to counter.
Millie’s ability to wield a credit card is her most surprising skill. Rising up on two legs, Millie stands with her paws on the nursing station counter, credit card gripped between her teeth, smiling like a happy shopper. On Moeltner’s command, she lets the nurse remove the credit card and waits slack mouthed for its return. No, Millie can’t swipe her own card – yet.
“Millie and Wookiee enrich the environment here for residents and staff,” said Kroontje Activities Director Johnathan Tate, who collaborated with Moeltner in bringing the dogs to campus. “Because of them, we’re in the process of bringing a resident service dog to Kroontje.”
“In the 11 or so months we’ve been coming to Warm Hearth, the dogs and I have reached many milestones,” Moeltner said. “We benefit from training around the variety of people and equipment. The staff is learning how to treat a working service dog. The residents benefit from being around the dogs. One woman in the memory unit who was always silent actually spoke to Wookiee. ”
Citing studies published in “Frontiers in Psychology” journal, Moeltner claims being in the company of a dog can lower people’s stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety level as well as improve their motivation to participate in activities. When Millie enters the therapy room, patients smile and press into their activities with new vigor.
Millie wants to be a good dog, but she can’t resist the toes sticking out of a patient’s leg cast. She darts out her tongue for a few quick licks as she trots by, and the recipient erupts into giggles.
“Millie’s a fun dog,” Moeltner said. “That’s why she’s going to take longer to train.”
Moeltner has earned credentials as a field trainer for Saint Francis and is a registered therapy dog handler through Pet Partners. She does this on a volunteer basis, as a labor of love, she said. In addition to Warm Hearth, she and her dogs visit LewisGale Montgomery Hospital regularly, usually in the waiting rooms.
Moeltner holds a master’s in special education from the University of Washington and has developed a school-based program, Individual Education Pups & Pets. This program, now based at Price’s Fork Elementary School, brings registered therapy animals into the schools to support students who are “at risk” or receiving special education services in achieving their academic and personal goals. Dogs are used to help students with physical skills and bring a relaxing presence to students struggling with reading. Children experiencing family crises may benefit from the sense of unconditional love and positive support offered by the mere presence of a therapy dog during a counseling session.
Moeltner consults with veterinarians at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and Virginia Tech’s Center for Animal Human Relationships — one of only 11 centers nationwide promoting research on the human-animal bond.
Moeltner has a mission to educate people about the proper training and roles of service and therapy animals. Service dogs are highly trained animals that provide assistance to an individual with a disability. They don’t socialize with other humans and should not be petted. Although therapy dogs also receive training, they are social dogs who interact with a variety of people while on duty.
Moeltner’s “pet peeve,” so to speak, is that no required central registry exists for trained service and therapy animals. By law, only service animals are allowed in certain places, such as restaurants and supermarkets. But unlike the people who use disabled parking placards, those with service animals don’t have to register anywhere; the Americans with Disabilities Act protects their privacy. So, although businesses can ask whether a dog is acting as a service animal, owners don’t have to prove that it is.
“People are passing off improperly trained animals as service animals,” Moeltner said. “When a disabled person is sold one of these animals or when an untrained dog interferes with his service animal, it makes life so much harder for someone whose life is already very difficult.”