COLUMBIA — Her first husband and son died in an accident. Her second husband had physical problems resulting from his work as a mechanic.
Those experiences have a lot to do with why Mary Cockrell volunteers with her trained therapy dogs at Rusk Rehabilitation Center.
Therapy dog volunteers have visited Rusk almost every Thursday for the past 15 years. The program is highly appreciated not only by the patients, but also by the staff who see the effect pet therapy has on patients.
"Sometimes pets can change a person completely," said Trista Marple, a marketing liaison for Rusk.
Volunteers at Rusk vary from week to week. On a recent Thursday, Carol Schreiber came to the center with her dog, Abby; Cockrell brought her Jack Russell Terrier, Emmy Lu; and Karen Muff brought her Brussels Griffon, Rudy, for the first time.
The first stop for the three volunteers and their dogs was the therapy gym. Patients are given a therapy schedule each morning — sometimes including time in the gym, Marple explained.
As the dogs wander through the room, they jump up on benches and greet the patients with wagging tails. It's the highlight of many people’s day, Marple said.
Emmy Lu is known by name to the nurses in the gym. She is a veteran therapy dog with a total of 682 visits to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other places.
After their visit to the gym, the volunteers walked down the halls of Rusk's three wings with their dogs trotting at their sides.
"Hello, would you like a visit from the therapy dogs?" Cockrell asks each time before she enters a room.
One patient, 5-year-old Kyah Jones, laughed as Rudy stood on his hind legs. Kyah's mother and father smiled and took pictures.
DeMyris Oliver, 4, was in a room down the hall from Kyah. All three dogs jumped up on his bed for the visit. DeMyris beamed with the dogs around him and petted Rudy's coarse fur. DeMyris stuck his tongue out and panted, imitating the brown Brussels Griffon.
"Sometimes (patients) will come out in the hall to make sure we don’t forget them," Cockrell said, laughing.
For Cockrell, what's most rewarding is seeing the progress patients make at Rusk. She thinks the dogs play a minor role in that.
Research shows that when a person interacts in a positive way with a dog, hormones are released in the brain by both the dog and human. Patients relax and feel more optimistic, helping them respond better to therapy, said Rebecca Johnson, professor and director of MU's Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction.
A dog's unconditional love and acceptance also makes patients feel more at ease, Johnson said.
Therapy dogs must go through training in order to be certified by Therapy Dogs International. Training includes 15 steps that expose potential therapy dogs to situations they may encounter in their work. The training is rigorous and includes acclimating the dog to the sight and sound of medical equipment, being petted with feet when hands can't be used and not picking up food or pills from the floor.
In Cockrell's view, a therapy dog must be willing to visit with anyone and be calm and obedient, while also being able to gauge people and their feelings.
"These dogs really have a mission," said Ann Gafke, who owns Teacher's Pet, a dog obedience school that offers therapy dog training and obedience classes.
Many people get interested in training their dogs to become therapy dogs after attending Gafke’s obedience classes, which was how Cockrell first got interested.
Cockrell’s first therapy dog, Gracie, is a German Shepherd and Rottweiler mix. The dog was left on the driveway of her rural home years ago. Because of Gracie’s calm demeanor, Cockrell believed she would be a good candidate for becoming a therapy dog. She was right — Gracie has been a therapy dog for eight years. .
Cockrell has three other dogs: Toby and Emmy Lu, who are certified therapy dogs, and Reuben, who is in training.
They're all rewarded with the love and appreciation they get from the patients at Rusk. But — dogs being dogs — they're also fond of the tangible rewards.
That's why their steps quicken at the end of their work day as they near the front desk at Rusk, where receptionist Glenda Sapp is known to stash dog treats.
"They have to work first," Sapp said, smiling as she gave the dogs a few treats each.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.