Heeling Partners Also Visit Schools, Libraries & Nursing Homes
“Hello little buddy,” a Calaway-Young Cancer Center patient said as six-year-old Chauncey strode into her room. “I am so happy you came to visit me. What kind of dog are you?”
“He’s a cockachon,” replied Jacquie Tannenbaum, Chauncey’s owner and handler. “Part cocker spaniel, part bichon. That’s what his DNA test told me, but there’s probably something else in there too. Who knows?”
With his fluffy coat of curls and permanent grin, one might begin to wonder if Chauncey is also perhaps part Muppet.
“Everyone always asks me what his breed mix is,” Tannenbaum laughed. “But there’s no way of knowing precisely what he is. He’s a rescue dog. Besides, his breed mix doesn’t matter—it’s more important that he has a big heart and knows how to use it.”
For the past year, Chauncey has indeed been putting his big heart to good use as a card-carrying member of Heeling Partners of the Roaring Fork Valley. About once a month, he visits community members who have a special need for the boundless love of a canine.
“Chauncey especially enjoys visiting residents at Grace Healthcare in Glenwood Springs,” said Tannenbaum, who currently serves as Heeling Partners’ president. “But he also goes to Valley View Hospital to visit patients, staff members or anyone else who walks through the door.”
Co-founded in 2002 by esteemed local dog trainer Laura Van Dyne and Sandy Jaffrey, wife of oncologist Dr. Ira Jaffrey, Heeling Partners visits a variety of locations from Basalt to Glenwood. Although the group started as a small initiative at Valley View nearly 14 years ago, it has grown to include an all-volunteer crew of about 20 members and eight certified dog teams.
“Our dog-human teams earn therapy certification together,” Tannenbaum noted. Each team consists of a dog and its owner, who must attend testing sessions together to determine if both are a good fit for Heeling Partners. “Testing involves a hybrid of obedience, behavior and handling in clinical situations. Not every dog is cut out for this kind of work, and not every person is either,” she said, adding that “the dogs must be naturally calm, have a sense of empathy and their owners must know proper handling protocol.”
Dogs are first evaluated locally by trainer Terena Thomas and then certified through an umbrella organization called the Alliance of Therapy Dogs based out of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Once a dog and its handler are certified, they begin volunteering right away. Heeling Partners teams make visits not only to Chauncey’s favorite spots of Valley View Hospital and Grace Healthcare, but also to Heritage Park Care Center in Carbondale. Additionally, Heeling Partners teams visit Glenwood Elementary school and the libraries in Glenwood, Carbondale and Basalt to participate in a special reading program called Paws to Read.
“Some of our dogs just really love being with kids, so we usually send them to the schools and libraries,” Tannenbaum said. “They work with children who need a little help practicing reading. The dogs are not judgmental—so the kids feel free to read as well as they can, make mistakes and start over if they need to.”
Although Heeling Partners has extended its reach to schools, libraries and local nursing homes, the heart of the organization has remained with Valley View, where it started out over a decade ago. Once per week on Tuesdays or Thursdays, at least one therapy team visits the hospital. “The hospital’s program is called Angels with Paws and it’s part of the Plane Tree Initiative, or patient-focused care,” Tannenbaum noted. “Our dogs typically visit Acute Care, but we have also been visiting the Cancer Center for about a year now.”
A Heeling Partners team spends approximately five minutes with each patient during a typical hospital visit. Even in that small amount of time, Tannenbaum said she witnesses something extraordinary occur when a dog walks into the room of an individual undergoing treatment or recovering from illness or surgery.
“For that five minutes, the animal just takes the patient out of themselves. They don’t ever talk about what is ailing them—they usually just want to talk about their own dogs. Chauncey will visit a room and it will remind the patient of the love they have for their own dog at home, or a dog they used to have,” she said. “For a moment, Chauncey gives them an escape from all the fear and the stress of their condition. You can just see it—it’s incredible.”
On his recent morning visit to the Cancer Center, Chauncey made a little magic happen wherever he went. Trotting contentedly down the hallways, his white coat bouncing with each step, Chauncey attracted admirers like bees to honey. Doctors, staff members, patients and visitors swarmed to greet him, scratch his ears and chuckle at his ever-present smile.
“Look at that grin,” an employee said, patting Chauncey’s head. “You have made my whole morning better.”
Chauncey spends a great deal of his time visiting the hospital’s patients, but Tannenbaum has observed his calming effect on staff members as well. “Little five-minute ‘happy breaks’ are what I call them,” Tannenbaum said. “Heeling Partners first began coming to the hospital to visit patients, but we quickly found that the employees need a break from all the stress, too. Chauncey has the ability to make them smile for the few minutes when he comes to visit.”
In a place like Valley View, where members of the community must face difficult situations every day, Chauncey and the seven other Heeling Partners therapy dogs are able to bring a little sunshine—and with that sunshine, a respite from emotional and physical pain.
As he rounded a corner near the chemotherapy wing, a nurse’s face lit up.
“Chauncey’s here,” she said, greeting him like an old friend.
“What can I say?” Tannenbaum laughed. “He’s got a following.”
To learn more about Heeling Partners and how to get involved, visit HeelingPartners.com.