From Salvationist 15 June 2019
Feature | Therapy Dog
Lieutenant Naomi Kelly tells Shanelle Manderson how her dog is helping to open up new doors for ministry
BRENGLE spends a lot of his time at Teesside University. No, he’s not studying. In fact, he’s usually working – the three-year-old golden retriever is a therapy dog.
‘My husband, Chris, and I have had him since he was eight weeks old,’ says Middlesbrough Citadel corps officer Lieutenant Naomi Kelly. ‘He’s been helping out since he was 18 months old.’
Therapy dogs provide emotional and psychological support to people in settings such as schools, hospitals and care homes. They must be friendly, gentle, at ease in all situations and enjoy human contact, as they interact more closely with others than service dogs, such as guide dogs, which should not be touched.
‘Essentially his job is to give cuddles,’ laughs Naomi. ‘It’s the easiest ministry The Salvation Army could do. He can only work two hours at a time because it tires him out, but he loves it and the people he interacts with love it. I love it too – it’s fun, easy and manageable. All I have to do is walk him before visits, so he’s not bouncy.’
After leaving the training college Naomi and Chris knew they wanted to get a dog. They wanted Brengle, named after holiness teacher Commissioner Samuel Logan Brengle, to be trained and well behaved. It made sense for him to be able to help people too.
However, Brengle was a boisterous puppy, and Naomi had worries about whether he would ever qualify as a therapy dog.
‘Therapy dogs have to have a naturally good temperament, but they also have to be good at following commands: things like sit and stay,’ explains Naomi. ‘Walking loosely on a lead without tugging was our biggest problem on walks because he was so energetic and happy to meet people.’
So Naomi took Brengle to some obedience classes with an informal community group for 18 months.
‘The classes were great, but it was hard work,’ says Naomi. ‘There were a lot of dogs and people, and other sounds and distractions, but Brengle was able to learn to focus on me and my instructions.
‘Now, if we’re visiting somewhere and a fire alarm goes off, for example, he doesn’t get jumpy or anything. He waits for my command. I guess you have to be one with your dog.’
The human-canine team regularly visit a nearby care home, spending time with the residents. But they have made the biggest impact at the university across from the hall.
‘It’s great!’ Naomi enthuses. ‘I get noticed on campus as the lady from The Salvation Army with the dog. I chat with the students, and they really open up to me about how they are and how they’re feeling. That gives me the opportunity to tell them we’re always at the corps if they want to chat.
‘Just a couple of weeks ago two students turned up asking for Brengle. What an opportunity! We went from struggling to engage with students for years to students knocking on our doors. One student is even using us as the subject of their dissertation!’
The first time Naomi realised Brengle would be a hit with the students was when a stray dog ran through the corps hall. After leashing him to a nearby railing she called the warden, and when she looked back outside students had flocked around the dog.
‘I realised this was powerful,’ she enthuses. ‘If I stood outside no one would even look at me but when you put a dog out there, all of a sudden everybody wants to know.’
Therapy work is known to increase self-esteem, social interaction and levels of comfort. At exam time students often feel a lot of pressure, but research by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that time with an animal helped alleviate stress and anxiety and increased happiness.
‘I think it’s such a valuable ministry for students and older people living in sheltered housing who miss having their pets around them,’ says Naomi. ‘But also for vulnerable people who maybe don’t get to see or don’t like speaking to other people...'
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