2014-01-31 / People

It’s doggone good therapy

Australian labradoodle delights seniors and children during visits
By Ann Fisher
Special contributor


Sharon Bates of Kennebunk and her therapy dog Rosie play before settling down to listen to students read during the afterschool Kid’s Club program at Willard School in Sanford. Bates and Rosie also visit the Alzheimer’s wing at Atria Kennebunk every week and are looking for more volunteer opportunities. (Ann Fisher photo) Sharon Bates of Kennebunk and her therapy dog Rosie play before settling down to listen to students read during the afterschool Kid’s Club program at Willard School in Sanford. Bates and Rosie also visit the Alzheimer’s wing at Atria Kennebunk every week and are looking for more volunteer opportunities. (Ann Fisher photo) KENNEBUNK – As the dog stands up on her hind legs and twirls around, it’s obvious Sharon Bates and her Australian labradoodle delight in each other’s company. But as a therapy dog team, they also enjoy the company of others.

That’s why Bates visits patients on the Alzheimer’s wing at Atria Kennebunk once a week. She also takes Rosie to an area after school program.

Bates is a relative newcomer to southern Maine. She moved to Kennebunk from New Jersey in 2001, although she and her husband previously owned a condo in the Kennebunks.

Originally from Ohio, Bates was a teacher at a private preschool before she retired and moved to Maine. She enjoyed teaching 4-year-olds – “It’s a good age,” Bates said – but is happy to now be working part time in a friend’s retail shop.

Bringing Rosie to visit with Atria’s residents “brightens their day and brings a smile to their face,” Bates said. “On good days they miss their dogs.”

“Some of the ladies joke with me, ‘Did she just get a perm?’”

It’s been about a year since the pair began therapy work, said Bates.

Bates had hopes that Rosie’s predecessor, a cocker spaniel named Maggie, would be a good candidate for therapy work, but the opposite proved to be the case.

“She had an extremely difficult personality,” said Bates. “I realized early on she would not be able to do pet therapy.

“She was good with family, but she really did not care about broadening her horizons.”

Bates and her husband, who have two grown daughters, did not think they wanted to get another dog after Maggie died at 17. But six months later the couple found themselves reconsidering. “I thought, ‘We don’t need a dog,’ but the house just got too quiet,” said Bates. “I just missed having a dog.”

Bates had a personal reason for becoming involved in therapy training with Rosie.

“A year ago this month my mom passed away,” said Bates. “She loved animals and heard stories about Rosie, but never met her. It made me feel badly. This was a way to carry on her memory.”

The dogs not only soothe the dementia patients, they can also spark memories, according to Shirley Haywood, an instructor with the Engage Life Program at Atria.

“Animals will bring back memories of pets they had or other animals,” said Haywood. “If they are having a bad day animals will just calm them down. They always light up.”

Said Bates, “Ninety-five percent of people are eager to say hello.”

Bates said she is not as outgoing as Rosie, who tends to break the ice rather quickly.

“She’ll cry if she can’t say hi,” Bates said. “Rosie is so outgoing, happy and loving. The dog leans into their legs, then I’ll chat with them,” she said.

Bates and Rosie are one of four pairs who visit Atria weekly, but Bates said it’s rare that all four are at the facility at the same time.

All the dogs have been thoroughly trained and tested and are qualified through Therapy Dogs, Inc.

Kim Van Sickle of the Animal Welfare Society is qualified to test through the Therapy Dogs organization. Over three to four sessions the instructor sees how the dogs react to different situations and stimuli such as a loud noise, a crash and an umbrella opening. They are also observed for their reaction to a strange dog walking by and whether they listen and take direction from their handlers. “How much control owner has,” said Bates.

She also trained at AWS, taking puppy classes and Canine Good Citizen, along with obedience classes at Pawz Around in Saco. “Rose was a very energetic puppy,” said Bates. “Both of us needed a lot of classes.”

As part of the test for therapy certification, Rosie and Bates then visited Atria to see how dogs relate to walkers, canes and a person who is not steady on their feet.

Since Rosie is “a little rambunctious,” therapy is “a good outlet for her.”

Once a month, Bates and Rosie also go to one of Sanford’s three elementary schools, Carl J. Lamb, Margaret Chase Smith and Willard. They are one of five pairs of owners and therapy dogs that participate in the Kid’s Club by having children read to them.

Bates got Rosie, who is 3, through a breeder at Australian Labradoodles of Coastal Maine. “I fell in love with the dog; the mother and the puppies,” said Bates. “I would hold and talk to them.”

Bates took Rosie home when the pup was just nine weeks old. “She was just a little fur ball,” Bates recalled.

With her red curls and weighing in at only only 17 ½ pounds, Rosie is still very much a cute and cuddly fur ball.

“She really entertains us; she’s such a good companion. She follows me from room to room.”

“She’s really just a good size. I love to take her to beach,” said Bates, who is the chairwoman of the town’s Dog Advisory Committee.

Although it’s not all work and no play for either Rosie or her owner, the pair are often on the go.

Two weeks ago they also filled in as a substitute therapy dog at the Kennebunk Library when another dog was “out on sick leave.”

Bates is also exploring other avenues for volunteering.

“She likes to be doing something,” said Bates, adding, “Just like Rosie, I need a job.”

“We’re just going to keep doing this.”

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