Therapy dogs a comforting sight in trying times

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Allison Ruggeri with therapy dogs Rocki (left) and Raisin
Allison Ruggeri poses with Rocki (left), who is retired after 12 years as a therapy dog, and Raisin, who still goes on visits.

Smiles flicker across faces and moods brighten when Raisin, a 10-year-old Australian shepherd, visits patients in hospitals and health care facilities.

Although the Therapy Dogs International certified therapy dog is happy to greet everyone, Raisin usually makes a beeline to the patient who most needs a dose of cheer.

Her human companion, Hopkinton resident Allison Ruggeri, can’t explain it. But she sees it constantly.

“I don’t have to say, ‘Go to them.’ She’s drawn to them. I trust her instincts.”

Those instincts bring comfort to patients, Ruggeri said. She said Raisin senses something like “electricity” that “goes down the leash” and onto the person needing special attention.
Raisin brings something that no medical professional can provide, Ruggeri said.

“She’s non-judgmental,” Ruggeri said. “She’s not there to give you medicine. She’s not there to give you bad news. These dogs are saying, ‘I get it, it’s OK, I’m here with you.’ ”

Ruggeri immediately senses a decrease in anxiety among Raisin’s new friends.

“You can almost see them, like, ah …” she said. “She can tell when people need extra time.”

That comfort makes Raisin and Ruggeri a popular team in local health care facilities. For more than 10 years, Ruggeri has walked the corridors of these facilities with her therapy dogs, first with Rocki, who is retired, then in more recent years with Raisin.

They are so popular that Ruggeri has been asked to make virtual visits during the pandemic. The visits may happen via Zoom, but Ruggeri said visits to the window for a face-to-face interaction, even at a distance, can elicit smiles that are “priceless.”

To be certified as a therapy dog, the canine must be at least 1 year old and have a calm, friendly nature.

Therapy dog Raisin visits with Muriel and Bob Welge, parents of Raisin’s owner/handler, Hopkinton resident Allison Ruggeri.
Therapy dog Raisin visits with Muriel and Bob Welge, parents of Raisin’s owner/handler, Hopkinton resident Allison Ruggeri.

Not every dog is cut out to be a therapy dog, Ruggeri said. They must be able to remain calm in a variety of settings, including in crowded elevators and around hospital alarms.
Dogs must be “rock solid” in a variety of situations, she explained. “Nothing fazes them.”

Therapy dogs come in all sizes and various breeds, but herding dogs tend to do well with people, Ruggeri said. “They’re very intuitive to people,” she said.

The dog’s human companion plays a key role. “We work as a team,” Ruggeri said. Ruggeri keeps a careful eye on Raisin and works to keep the dog safe and free from stress in all situations. “These dogs don’t ask for the job,” she said. “We ask them to be our helping paws, so to speak.”

The human companion also sets the tone, she said, by knowing how to approach patients sensitively, often finding common ground for conversation. Ruggeri has learned to “think on my feet” and to answer a lot of questions about the dog.

And Ruggeri has to keep her own emotions in check. At times she is moved to tears by the interactions of Raisin and patients, but she does not cry until she reaches the parking lot.
Bringing Raisin to people who may be ill and lonely creates great rewards, she said.

“I’ve seen the emotional benefits that she can draw out of people,” Ruggeri said. “I’ve had patients with tears streaming down their face, saying, ‘You’ve given me 20 minutes of happiness.’ ”

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