It was on a visit with his grandma at an assisted living facility that Matt Keith first encountered therapy dogs.
After that visit, Keith, a project lead at Mid-States, who has been with the company since Feb. 2015, decided to learn more about therapy dogs. He already had a one-and-a-half-year-old black lab, Fenway, who he adopted from the Freeport Humane Society. A calm dog, most of Fenway’s initial training was done at home, by Keith.
When it came to therapy dog training, much of the training was actually handler training. Keith went through weeks of training, a mix of fundamental, basic dog, and therapy dog training. It also educated Keith on how to pick up on cues from Fenway, to familiarize with hospital equipment, role-playing for the hospital environment and coaching on safe dog handling in health care facilities.
Keith began taking Fenway, now seven-years-old, on visits to hospitals in 2014. He has visited several area hospitals; Willow Park Senior Center, where his grandma resided; and Provena Nursing Home, where his grandma moved after Willow Park. The two made visits about once per quarter through 2016.
Most of Keith’s visits were with seniors in assisted living or nursing homes, some with special needs. His visits with children were often with children with special needs, or children being treated for cancer.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Keith said. “It tears at your heartstrings.”
But, he added, the fact that these visits can brighten the days of those going through a tough time is especially humbling.
On these visits, Keith and Fenway visited with as many people as possible. While the kids love to hug and hang on to Fenway, the seniors love to just let Fenway sit with them while they pet and talk to him.
As much as those in the hospitals and other facilities love to visit with Fenway, it can be a little bit stressful for Keith as the handler.
“You are providing for these people and that makes you feel good, but you are also responsible for the dog,” he said.
In addition to Fenway, Keith also has a two-year-old German shepherd name Shea at home. Though Shea doesn’t quite have the temperament of a therapy dog – she is still a puppy after all – Keith would like to get Fenway back into area hospitals and facilities in the near future.