FORT BENNING, GA – Feeling stressed? Anxious? Depressed? Never fear, Heidi is here to spread unconditional love. The 20-month-old Aussiedoodle is Martin Army Community Hospital’s newest therapy dog. Clinical Nurse Officer in Charge (CNOIC) of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Eric Canady is Heidi’s owner.
“I knew right away she would be a great therapy dog,” said Canady. “She LOVES people.”
Canady searched far and wide … combing a five state region for nearly half a year … before getting Heidi from a breeder in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when the puppy was 10 weeks old. She gets her beautiful blue merle pattern from her Australian Sheppard mother and her non-shedding fur from her Poodle father.
“I chose the Aussiedoodle breed for their hypoallergenic properties and their high intelligence level as well as trainability,” said Canady. “As soon as I got Heidi, I reached out to the local Pet Partners chapter for training tips. I tailored her training to facilitate her certification as a therapy dog.”
Turns out becoming a certified therapy dog is no walk in the park, even for dogs who love to snuggle or their two-legged handlers. After completing the necessary coursework along with the Fort Benning veterinarian’s medical and temperament screenings, Canady tested Heidi as soon as she turned one, the minimum age allowed for certification. But the team failed.
“Actually, Heidi passed, I failed. I failed because I wasn’t proactive enough,” shared Canady. “Heidi jumped up and licked one of the evaluators. I should have knelt down and held her by the collar until Heidi got used to the other person.”
Like a dog with a bone, Canady didn’t give up. He enlisted the help of Pet Partners Senior Evaluator Angie Zapata for training tips. To date, the national nonprofit has registered 10,000 volunteer therapy teams.
“The evaluation consists of approximately 14 different stations that replicate different scenarios you will encounter as a therapy team,” explained Canady. “Wheelchairs, walkers, screaming patients, loud noises, ‘clumsy petting,’ weird smells, that sort of thing.
“She hated crutches. I don’t know why. I got her since she was a puppy so I know she wasn’t beaten or any trigger like that. I had to put crutches on a chair, I had to walk around on them for about a week, I left them by her crate, left them in her crate so she got used to the smell and look of them. It was just weird.”
All the extra work paid off. Heidi and Canady passed with flying colors on their second try just a couple of months later. Now the 45-pound bundle of joy and her hooman volunteer every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon visiting the inpatient wards.
“Heidi and I are flying solo right now. Heidi’s biggest impact has been with our Inpatient Behavioral Health patients,” said Canady. “BMACH staff enjoy her visits as well. Our goal is to enlist more therapy teams to provide more coverage to other departments.
“The only thing on the floor that freaks her out are the nasal gastric tubes. When a patient has a tube coming out of their nose, Heidi is like ‘what the heck,’ and she looks and strains forward and sniffs.”
Apparently Heidi has been a very good girl. And not just at sit, stay and leave it. The American Red Cross of Georgia recognized her and Canady for “Service to the Armed Forces” on August 5. The award honors someone who has provided exceptional support to service members, veterans or their families.
Canady hopes two more potential therapy teams in the pipeline, including Zapata and her dog Sam, will soon be cleared to volunteer at BMACH.