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A helping paw

With the help of her therapy dogs, a veteran ophthalmic technician assists patients outside the clinic.

My 35 years of experience as an ophthalmic technician has taught me patience and how to understand others’ concerns, both of which I also used as a therapy dog trainer.

Seventeen years ago, I acquired my first purebred Golden Retriever, Susie. I trained dogs in professional obedience shows, but Susie had too short an attention span for that even after the proper classes. I looked for other activities for her and a friend of mine asked if I could bring her to a nursing home where she worked.

Susie took to this like a duck to water and made two very close friends. One of the ladies she loved to visit only spoke Polish, but oddly enough she and Susie connected and Susie brought such a smile to her face. The second lady was visually impaired, and Susie would just sit by her side and the woman would stroke her fur. Often, no words were uttered, it was just the closeness of being there that built the connection.

“Charlie is here for a visit”

A few years later, Charlie, a big, old-souled Golden Retriever, came to live with us. After his training, I started bringing him with Susie on visits, and again this was a perfect match. Charlie was as patient as the day is long and sat for hours to hear people tell stories.

Gretchen Ford has trained many therapy dogs over the years, including Toby (left) and Charlie.
COURTESY GRETCHEN FORD, COT

We started visiting a new site, where Charlie made friends with a woman who would often cut short phone calls from her daughter, saying “I can’t talk to you now. Charlie is here for a visit.” It became so frequent that the daughter called the facility to ask who Charlie was and how close were he and her mother. The staff happily reported that Charlie was a “wonderfully kind, handsome, blonde Golden Retriever,” much to her surprise.

Charlie and Susie also were invited every summer to attend a camp for kids with cancer, many of whom could not have dogs due to their extreme medical concerns.

Not for the faint of heart

After Susie passed, I volunteered to screen and assist people interested in training therapy dogs. Over the years, I have trained countless dogs and their owners.

The most rewarding part is sharing my canine companion with someone who is lonely and just needs a friend; the hardest part is losing some of the residents we visit, and retiring my dogs from visiting due to their own health. It’s very common for therapy dogs to “burn out” after a while, due to the demands on their attention. This is not a task for the faint of heart — human or canine.

Charlie, my old soul, passed away four years ago, and I am currently training Riley, a rambunctious, 15-month-old Golden Retriever pup. He has the making of a wonderful therapy dog — he’s friendly, loves everyone, and has plenty of time to sit and listen. He’s still settling into his routine, but I can’t wait until he is ready. OP

Ms. Ford has worked as a Certified Ophthalmic Technician for 35 years, most recently at the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center. Since the fall of 2016, she has worked as an administrator/project coordinator at Kellogg.