The excitement of a couple dozen wide-eyed clients of the Oklahoma Foundation for the Disabled was almost tangible when Billy Thomas walked into the room with his therapy dog, Whiskey.
Amanda Holland, a client with a genetic disorder, had a grin on her face as she petted the 5-year-old Australian shepherd while sitting on a bed in the downstairs room.
Later, Thomas tossed tennis balls for Whiskey to catch. Several clients watched, amused. Thomas even helped Holland toss a couple for the dog to catch from her mattress perch.
“She just blossoms when she sees Whiskey,” Georgia Devening, executive director of the foundation, said about Holland.
Before Thomas adopted him, Whiskey was a day away from being euthanized. At that time, Whiskey didn’t know how to urinate, his fur was matted, and he would run and hide if Thomas picked up a belt, Thomas said.
“He looked like a disregarded bottle of Jack Daniels left on the side of the road when I first got him,” he said.
Now, Whiskey is a well-groomed and loving dog. But Whiskey will never know his name or hear the laughter of patients at the foundation. He’s deaf.
Using impairment for good
The impairment seems like it could be a benefit for his role as a therapy dog. No matter how many screams, cries or other loud noises surround Whiskey, he doesn’t get startled. That’s one requirement for a therapy dog to be registered with Therapy Dogs International, an organization that gives accreditation to more than 20,000 dogs doing similar work in the United States and Canada.
Other requirements include the dog allowing someone to inspect its paws, ears and tail, allowing a stranger to hold its leash, obeying basic commands and displaying an eagerness to visit surrounding strangers.
The organization refused to accept Thomas’s first therapy dog, Patience.
“Patience was the only dog to score 100 percent on the test, and she was the first in the class,” Thomas said. “We were all happy and we sent the paperwork off to New Jersey where their headquarters were, and they denied her based solely on her deafness.”
Without certification, Patience and Thomas were barred from certain opportunities until Thomas found Therapy Dogs Inc., which accepted the earlier evaluation. Patience became Therapy Dogs Inc.’s first registered deaf therapy dog.
Over time, Thomas dug up volunteer opportunities for his furry friend. She visited children with developmental disabilities at the J.D. McCarty Center in Norman, children with cancer at the Toby Keith Foundation’s Kids Korral, and several schools in central Oklahoma before she died from a stroke in September 2012.
His canine sister left a legacy for Whiskey.
Whiskey was in a book called the “Deaf Dog Photo Project” and won Petsmart Charities’ first-ever “Most Magnificent Rescue Dog in the Nation” title.
Thomas said Whiskey and Patience both are in the Therapy Dog Wall of Fame.
But training therapy dogs isn’t about proving wrong the people who said Patience and Whiskey couldn’t do it, or winning an impressive collection of prestigious accolades.
It’s about the lady in a nursing home who met Patience and said, “Pretty dog, pretty dog, pretty dog,” to the shock of the nurses who said she had never uttered a word to them.
And it’s about the client at the Foundation for the Disabled who avoided interacting with others, but ran around the recreation building, leading Whiskey on his leash.
“Just a stare or a reach — sometimes something small is really big,” Thomas said.
“I think they feel important because it’s something they can touch and feel, and it’s not something they have to stay away from,” Devening said.
“Sometimes just to sit back and watch them smile, that’s so much fun,” Thomas added.