Minnesota woman finds comfort in therapy dog
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Before Casey came along, Pam Hermann wasn’t a fan of public places.
A simple grocery store visit — with people rushing past, loud noises and unfamiliar objects in her way — could induce panic.
But now, Hermann, who is blind and has developmental disabilities, can’t wait to cruise the aisles, running her hands over hair products and hardware, accompanied by her companion.
“Once a week we have to go look at bunches of stuff,” Hermann said.
Casey, a three-legged therapy dog, has found a kindred spirit in Hermann and the three other people with disabilities who live in a West St. Paul house.
The 4-year-old pit bull and Labrador mix has been living with Hermann at the home for 18 months, during which time she has lost weight, goes out more and is generally happier, people closest to her say.
“It was just this amazing turnaround from the first time they met,” said Cindy Smith, program coordinator at the Dakota Communities house where Hermann lives.
That Casey lives with his own disability has only endeared him more to housemates and staff members, they say.
“He doesn’t think of himself as disabled,” Smith said. “It’s a great reminder to the people who live here that there are no limits. You can do anything you set your mind to.”
Hermann’s mother, to whom she was very close, died three years ago in a car accident.
The unexpected death took a toll on Hermann, who still cries for her mother every year around the anniversary of the accident.
“It definitely affects her in ways she can’t verbalize to us,” said Hermann’s sister, Emberly Hermann-Johnson.
Hermann’s sadness was apparent to everyone around her.
“Pam is generally a super-happy person,” Smith said. “When she was sad, it was really hard to see that.”
Her sister wanted to do something to help.
“Pam used to go to my parents’ house at least once or twice a month, and one of the highlights for her was, she would get to spend time with Honey, my parents’ Lab,” Hermann-Johnson said.
Because of Hermann’s developmental disabilities, she wouldn’t be able to use a traditional service dog, but Hermann-Johnson hoped there was still a way to find her a companion.
After some research, Hermann-Johnson hired a trainer who knew Casey and thought he would be a good fit.
Casey had been with another family as a therapy dog, but a boy with autism was too hard on him physically, so he had been waiting in foster care for a new home. No one is sure how Casey lost his leg.
The dog was introduced slowly, visiting at first to make sure he and Hermann would bond. Staff members had to get to know Casey, too, because they would be responsible for much of his care and handling.
But everyone knew from the moment the pair met that Casey and Hermann were meant to be.
“There was really no question we’d do anything to keep Casey for Pam,” Smith said.
In the 18 months since Casey came to live at the house, Hermann’s life has completely changed, staff members say.
And Casey has it pretty good, too.
Recently, the pair cuddled on Hermann’s bed, Hermann stroking the dog’s fur and giggling as he licked her face. The top drawer of her dresser, labeled “Casey’s stuff,” is packed with tug ropes, chew toys and biscuits.
A plush dog bed rests at the foot of Hermann’s bed.
“He’s loved, and he’s incredibly spoiled,” Smith said.
Hermann, who didn’t care much for exercise before, takes the responsibility of walking Casey very seriously.
In fact, she has lost 50 pounds and is in the process of stopping her diabetes medication.
“Having Casey makes her want to go on walks,” Hermann-Johnson said. “Before she didn’t want to...but now it’s like, ‘Pam, Casey is your dog and you need to walk him.’ “
Recently, when Hermann needed a break from all the people in the house, she retreated to her room, donning headphones and spinning in circles, music blaring.
Before she lost weight, Hermann couldn’t spin, a physical activity staff members said comforts her.
And Hermann is much happier since Casey came along. Advocates for canine therapy say the reason is simple.
“There’s something about petting a dog’s fur that is very relaxing,” said Pat Kinch, co-director of the local chapter of Therapy Dogs International. “A lot of the stress you have leaves you when you’re petting a dog.”
Kinch, who has several therapy dogs who visit nursing homes and hospitals, said she once watched on a monitor as a postoperative patient’s blood pressure went down while petting one of her dogs.
It’s not just Hermann who benefits from Casey’s presence, though.
Caring for the dog gives all the residents a sense of purpose.
Casey has food allergies and is on a special diet. Residents know not to feed him people food. They help give him his medications, too.
“This gives them the sense of taking care of something rather than them always being the ones taken care of,” said Toni O’Brien, director of community life for Dakota Communities.
Residents spend more time together in the living room, watching television or just lounging with Casey around, staff members said.
“People weren’t willing to sit together for long periods of time,” O’Brien said. “Casey just makes it more homelike.”
Getting residents out of the house for outings is much easier, too. Staff members said before Casey arrived, it could take up to a few hours to convince everyone to go, get them ready and load them in the van.
“But now, it’s like, ‘Casey’s waiting in the car! Let’s go,’ “ Smith said.
She said the group’s outings, including taking Casey on frequent trips to area dog parks, have at least tripled since the dog came to live there.
Walking Casey in public helps with making friends, too, O’Brien said.
“When people see Pam walking the dog, they see a person, not her disability,” O’Brien said. “They’ll walk up and talk to her.”
Those who know Casey and Hermann say the dog’s gentle and friendly demeanor make him a perfect fit.
Hermann-Johnson prefers to think that’s not an accident.
“When (the dog trainer) told us about Casey’s own disability, all of my family just fell in love with him,” Hermann-Johnson said. “I felt like my mom’s spirit was involved in the process of finding Casey for Pam.”