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Retired Educator and Her Dog Provide Comfort to Others
By Paul Lonardo
Maureen Tessier is a retired educator, having taught at all grade levels for forty years, much of that time in the Foster-Glocester Regional School district. Maureen and husband, David, raised their son, Daniel, in Smithfield, where they were very active in the community. Daniel participated in town sports and became an Eagle Scout. As her son started to get older Maureen began looking into different ways she might be able to give back to the community that had given so much to her son and family over the years. Maureen also had a background in counseling, so she was thinking that the combination of these two professions – counseling and education – would be perfect, as far as what she could offer. At first, however, she did not know how she could apply what she knew in a way that would be useful to others. Then one Christmas three years ago, Daniel surprised his father when he brought home a puppy. David Tessier had been distraught over the recent loss their family pet, a yellow Labrador, Dakota, that had been part of the family for sixteen years.. The new dog, which they named Maddie, was an Aussie-Doodle, a combination of a poodle and an Australian Shepherd, with a personality that doesn’t stop. Maddie was instantly welcomed into the house, and was a hit everywhere he went.
Then, as fateful things usually happen, Maureen’s future came unexpectedly into view when she encountered a woman at the vet’s office. The woman, who started talking to Maureen about pet therapy, was completely charmed by Maddie, and suggested that Maureen look into a program at CCRI called Windwalkers. And she did.
“It’s basically an 18-month program,” Maureen says, “and there are three courses that you take to get credentialed and become a team, you and your dog.”
The program is sponsored by the Windwalker Humane Coalition, which by the organization’s own definition, is a group of people comprised of professionals, Pet Assisted Therapy (PAT) facilitators, and students who believe in the therapeutic benefits to people, animals, and society of programs based on the human/animal-companion bond.
“The program was phenomenal,” Maureen says. “The whole experience was incredible.”
The first course was a classroom setting, where she was taught the theory behind the Pet Assisted Therapy, as well as learning about all the programs that were available and the health benefits of each.
“It was very informational,” Maureen says. “And it helped clear up in my mind what Windwalkers was all about, especially in comparison to various other pet therapy certification programs that are offered online and elsewhere. I really learned what Windwalkers was all about and I feel very comfortable earning the credentials that I did.”
The second course was with Elmhurst Nursing Home in Providence. Maureen and Maddie went to the facility on a regular basis and she learned the necessary behaviors particular to this physical setting and the people there. Maddie learned about elevators and sliding doors, as well as the institutional smells, and not to pick up anything off the floor, such as food or pills. Her dog learned how to walk alongside a person with a walker or in a wheelchair.
The third course was an internship, and Maureen and Maddie did theirs at Zambarano Hospital in Burrillville.
“I cannot be complimentary enough describing how wonderful that experience was for me. When I was younger, I did an internship at Zambarano Hospital, which was for a completely different purpose forty years ago. Now the facility was immaculate and the relationship that the staff had with the patients was very personal. Everything was run efficiently, there were a ton of activities, and it was just a great experience.”
Maureen and Maddie started out working with the more mobile patients, and people who needed walkers or wheelchairs to get around. They would visit with them in their rooms, and they were all very excited to be in Maddie’s company.
“The dog would get on their laps, or they would feed the dog, and that was huge,” Maureen says. “A lot of times there was a physical therapy component to it. For some patients, especially the ones who had suffered strokes, just opening up their hands to allow the dog to take a treat was a big step. That kind of involvement was really satisfying to me because it wasn’t just about reducing anxiety and high blood pressure, it was more of a physical thing, and I like that.”
Interacting with people who were bedridden, some whom could not move or were unable to communicate, was always rewarding to Maureen.
“You could just see their eyes light up when they saw Maddie,” Maureen said. “They would just love it when the dog got on the bed with them, or licked their cheek. Even just having the dog’s fur brush against their skin. It was absolutely great. The feedback was wonderful. And these experiences encouraged me more and more. It was something I wanted to continue doing.”
That was three years ago. Today, Maureen and Maddie are an officially credentialed Professional Pet Assisted Therapy team, and they actively work up to twenty hours a month, volunteering at nursing homes, hospitals, workplaces, elementary schools, college campuses, and wherever there is a need for a therapy dog.
“My goal right now is to get involved in addiction treatment facilities,” Maureen says. “I’ve seen so many changes in people’s personalities when they work with the dogs, whether it is just relaxation, lowering anxiety, improving communication skills, or something more profound. It’s something I would love to break into. That’s my next big goal.”
Like the human half of the team, who come from all different walks of life, the breeds of the dog also vary greatly. Maureen was surprised that of the many dogs in her class, including Shepherds, Boxers, Pugs, and a coonhound, there were no Labs. Also surprising to her, not all the animals were dogs. It is called Pet Assisted Therapy, after all, and other pets that have been credentialed by Windwalker include several cats, bunnies, a duck, a ferret and even a mini horse.
If you would like to arrange to visit from Maureen and Maddie, or if you are interested in getting credentialed with your pet visit: http://windwalkerpettherapy.org/credentialed-teams.htm or contact Maureen directly email@example.com