BEMIDJI — Cancellations upon cancellations are the norm in 2020, and this can certainly be disappointing. Humans aren’t the only ones missing events — so are the Paul Bunyan Dog Training Association therapy dogs who usually spend their time visiting seniors at assisted living facilities or patients in the hospital — two places visitors aren’t particularly welcome these days.
However, some four-legged friends were able to greet people again and spread some cheer on Nov. 19 at the Bemidji State University A.C. Clark Library, bringing smiles to students and faculty.
Four therapy dogs were in attendance Thursday night, ranging from newcomer to veteran status.
Norway — a.k.a. Norway the Mayor Dog — came with a bit of notoriety. One BSU student who walked through to pet him, remarked that he already followed Norway on Twitter.
It was a first-time therapy event for George, a nearly-two-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever. He was certified as a therapy dog right at the beginning of the pandemic and hadn’t yet had many opportunities to flex his new gentle listener skills.
Also in the room were Hero, Ethan Larson’s chihuahua, who is a beloved face on the BSU campus, and golden retriever, Skye, who belongs to Therapy Dogs volunteer Tracy Parthun.
During the event, Lena Leeport, age two, excitedly made rounds visiting all the dogs, and joyfully identified their wet noses. Leeport’s parents, Patrick and Cassy, both work at the A.C. Clark Library and brought Lena in as a surprise.
Around 30 college students trickled in throughout the evening to pet the dogs — many mentioning how they have been lonely throughout this semester and miss being able to see their family dogs back home.
The Therapy Dogs program is a volunteer group in partnership with the Paul Bunyan Dog training association. Its goal is to provide handlers and their therapy dogs for visits to nursing home facilities, schools, hospitals, libraries, rehabilitation centers, hospices, Boys and Girls Clubs, and juvenile detention and treatment centers.
Ordinarily, therapy dogs spend a good bit of time bringing smiles to patients in the hospital and seniors in assisted living facilities, but due to COVID-19, this has been minimal.
Parthun said over the summer they were able to be a bit more creative.
“Under current conditions, we are doing more with outdoor visits, coming around to nursing home windows, or stationed outdoors near a facility for staff or visitors to stop by for puppy hugs and snuggles as needed,” Parthun said on the Therapy Dogs Facebook page back in the summer.
Currently, the group makes weekly stops at the Boys and Girls Club in Bemidji. Many of the therapy dogs in town also serve as reading canines, helping out with virtual storytime at the Bemidji Public Library.
The dogs bring joy to a long day, provide a happy subject for conversation, and rekindle memories of long ago pets, Parthun said. It has been clinically proven that through petting, touching, and talking with the animals, clients’ blood pressure is lowered, stress is relieved and depression is eased, she added.
Volunteer handlers and their four-footed therapists come from Beltrami County and surrounding areas. The local therapy dog program began in 2000.
All dogs involved had to first pass a six-week training course through the Paul Bunyan Dog Training Association.