Echo sits quietly, his eyes fixed on owner and trainer Tiffany
Mikles, director of the memory disorder unit at Gilroy Healthcare
and Rehabilitation Center. Echo is waiting.
Each morning he gets cleaned up and dressed for work, with a
thorough brushing and a quick check of his teeth and paws. Working
dogs can’t be dirty, so he gets a bath, nail clipping and tooth
brushing once a week, and he knows he’s got responsibilities when
he dons his signature green vest, a signal that he’s on the
Echo sits quietly, his eyes fixed on owner and trainer Tiffany Mikles, director of the memory disorder unit at Gilroy Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. Echo is waiting.
Each morning he gets cleaned up and dressed for work, with a thorough brushing and a quick check of his teeth and paws. Working dogs can’t be dirty, so he gets a bath, nail clipping and tooth brushing once a week, and he knows he’s got responsibilities when he dons his signature green vest, a signal that he’s on the job.
The small border terrier’s daily visits – stops for petting, posing and playing fetch – may seem like the typical activities of any other dog, but that’s not what Echo is actually up to. His interaction with patients in the secure Alzheimer’s ward at Gilroy Healthcare helps residents feel calm and at home, and encourages them to exercise their brains and practice physical skills like overhand throwing, brushing and walking that are often lost as dementia progresses.
Echo is a therapy dog, and some studies have shown that pets like him help to reduce blood pressure and the need for pain medication in nursing home patients. Along with Mikles, he helps put ward residents at ease during the day, brightening their faces and making the medical facility feel more like home.
In the ward’s main room, many of the residents spend the midmorning sitting quietly or fast asleep in chairs arranged around a large television, but when Echo shows up their faces brighten. A chorus of oohs and ahs ripples through the room as some residents react to the dog as if seeing him for the first time.
“How old is he?”
“Does he bite?”
“Is he housebroken?”
As three-year-old Echo quietly visits each resident who wishes to pet him, the mood turns light.
“I looked like that when I was about three,” jokes a gentleman in a creme-colored polo shirt. “Everybody wanted to pat me, too.”
The residents giggle as a nurse points out, “Boy, you sure grew up fast, John.”
“Yep,” he shoots back with a grin. “I ate a lot.”
The giggles turn to loud chuckles and the residents all say good-bye to the little dog, eyes following him around the corner as it’s time to go. A
therapy dog’s visits are varied in length, all depending on how quickly the dog gets fatigued. Echo can stay out with residents for an hour or more,
but most visits are 15 to 20 minutes. More than a highlight in the day, Echo’s presence is a tool. Just with his presence, he’s working these patients’ brains, said Dolly Lerma, an activities assistant for Gilroy Healthcare.
“They’ve all had pets at one time or another, and it’s a good time for them to remember their pets, remember their names and things,” said Lerma. “They reminisce
about the dogs they’ve had or they’ll just say they had a dog for a long time.”
These are small revelations, but important steps in helping patients to keep their memories intact for as long as possible. Unfortunately, dogs like Echo are hard to find.
Mikles, who became involved in animal-assisted therapy 16 years ago spent a considerable amount of time searching out this, her third therapy dog. Echo was the sole puppy she chose from two litters she observed at four, six and eight weeks.
“I looked for which puppy was oriented toward humans – going toward both men and women, not just one – and which puppy liked being held without a lot of squirming,” said Mikles. “I rolled up pieces of paper and threw them around. You want to test out the prey drive so you can make sure it’s low, and then you start with the training.”
Mikles then spent 13 months training Echo in puppy classes, ensuring not that he would follow every command – she didn’t teach him to heel, for instance – but that he was very attuned to a few. Therapy dogs, which are approved through the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes animal therapy and assistance, must be able to respond to several key commands with extremely light prompting.
When Echo begins to jump on a person, Mikles can say the word “off” in a soft speaking voice and he’ll stop immediately. He also responds to the command, “leave it,” which tells him not to pick up items that can harm him, such as spilled pills.
In a setting where patients who’ve spent many years as caregivers are forced to become those cared for, the dog gives ward residents the opportunity to express concern or feel that they’re contributing to the care of another.
“They have this great concern that he’s going to starve to death, so I let them feed him sometimes or I let them give him treats,” said Mikles. “It’s definitely not a medical necessity, but it adds more balance to the medical environment for everybody – patients and staff.”
Echo isn’t just helpful for patients – staff members will drop in to visit and play with him in Mikles’ office, then get up and go back to work when they’re feeling better.
“Having a dog here gives a more holistic picture to what can sometimes be a pretty sterile atmosphere,” said Mikles. “The residents don’t always have to be doing something with the dog. When we go out to plant flowers, they’ll ask if he can come along. He’ll just be running around out there, like a dog would if you were working out in your own yard.”
Every two years, Echo and Mikles must be evaluated by a panel of Delta Society judges, who look at the animals on both ends of the leash.
“The evaluators are looking at us as a team when it comes to skills and temperament, so I get graded and he gets graded,” said Mikles. “The lower of the two scores is the one you take for that item. So, if he’s doing his walk on the lead (walking peacefully on a slack leash) right except for something small, and I give him a sharp correction, I get a low score.”
In the course of his short career, Echo has worked solely with geriatric patients, and he excels in dealing with dementia patients, said Mikles. He isn’t startled by the odd behaviors or movements many patients develop, but should he ever fail to pass his Delta Society exams, he’ll be retired, just like her two previous dogs. Most dogs last five to seven years in the job, she said.
Mikles’ other dogs worked in physical therapy and acute care positions. They also visited children affected by disease, abuse or abandonment. Her dogs have been invited to comfort the families of hospice patients who had looked forward to their visits from furry friends in care facilities, and sometimes they’re even invited to funerals for former patients.
But Echo isn’t always on the clock. In his off time, he is just a regular dog who enjoys running around the yard. He even has his own sandbox for digging, a favorite pastime. That is, until the call of duty comes again.