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Published on May 20, 2019

Mary Jo Jaqua and her therapy dog Spirit

Sometimes the Best Therapy is a Furry Friend

Medical school with its many demands can be stressful and lonesome.

“That all changed when I met Harley,” said Aaron Burkhardt, DO, Avera Medical Group internal medicine physician who adopted his Great Dane rescue dog during a trying time in his life and career.

“He quickly became my best friend, and he remains my best friend to this day, helping me to make it through some tough times and challenges in life,” said Burkhardt, who now owns three Great Danes. “Harley was really there for me – I could come home from a long day and he’d run up and the concerns would just melt away from my mind.”

Recognizing the unconditional love dogs bring to people doesn’t require a degree in medicine. Their “best friend” moniker is well-earned. Spending time with a dog can benefit patients in hospitals, clinics and hospice, as they soak in the absolute joy dogs dole out with abandon.

“It was 15 years ago when I started therapy-dog work. I had a great German Shepherd, Patriot, with a perfect temperament for therapy,” said Mary Jo Jaqua, PhD, a volunteer who brings her therapy dog to health care facilities, schools and retirement communities in the Sioux Falls area. “I wanted to share that precious dog with others. Training him and testing for certification as a therapy dog team would let me do just that.”

National Standards

Jaqua trained her temperament-blessed dog to meet the requirements of Therapy Dogs International (TDI). In the 16 years since she began, she has certified three additional German Shepherd dogs – Justice, Austin and Spirit. Over time, she paired with each of them to bring unreserved affection to patients, staff, family, visitors, children and the disabled.

Amazing Rewards

Dogs like Jaqua’s current therapy teammate, Spirit, need elite levels of discipline to gain status as therapy dogs, such as acute attention and rock-solid demeanor.

“They cannot be alarmed by loud noises or take food on the floor – they have to be on their best behavior,” she said. At home, they are, after all, dogs. They love all the things pups love – eating, napping, playing, and treats.

Aaron Burkhardt, DO and QuinnAaron Burkhardt, DO and Quinn

Burkhardt said that he hopes his younger Great Danes, Quinn, a 4-year-old, and Freya, who is about 1, will eventually test for and become certified as therapy animals. He’s seen first-hand, as a physician, how beneficial a dog’s presence in a clinical setting can be.

“While in residency, we had a stroke patient, and her children were hoping to reach her before she passed. She was struggling with a ventilator, and we were struggling to keep her vital signs stable,” he said. “I told one of her kids to bring her Chihuahua to the room. When they did, the dog curled up on her lap. Her vital signs normalized and she stopped fighting the vent. All of her family was able to come and say their goodbyes. That visit from her dog – that conscious and unconscious bond – made a huge difference. It does for so many patients and for so many people.”

Jaqua said the love her dogs have had for the work is uncanny.

“The minute I put on my volunteer uniform and get Spirit’s red bandana out, he becomes excited, running around with his tail wagging.” She said. “Once we arrive, he knows he is there for patients as well as visitors, family and staff. And he loves it.”

All Give Love, But Not All the Same

Service Dogs: These highly professional animals provide guidance to people with impaired vision, brace patients with unstable gaits, help to predict seizures for those people who face them or lend aid in diabetic crises. You should refrain from distracting them with petting while they work, because their loyalty and focus is solely placed on the owner/handler.

Certified Therapy Dogs: These dogs also are highly trained, tested and certified. They provide emotional support to people in retirement communities, hospitals, schools and other facilities. In each setting, the calm, friendly dogs bring peace to those they visit. It also brings smiles to the faces of residents, patients, staff, family and visitors. Dogs that provide this valuable service must have kind, outgoing temperaments, outstanding obedience skills and the ability to remain calm in the face of many distractions. While they provide appreciated affection, therapy dogs are not service dogs.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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