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Will County therapy dog program helps youngest victims cope

Jackson is a 4-year-old therapy dog who volunteers at the Will County Children's Advocacy Center.  |  Jane Donahue/For Sun-Times Media/Naperville Sun  20140114Tuesday,Montogmery
Cheri Johnson brings Jackson to work with her on the days he is needed at the Will County Children's Advocacy Center.  |  Jane Donahue/For Sun-Times Media/Naperville Sun  20140114Tuesday,Montogmery
Owner Cheri Johnson said, when Jackson gets his red vest on, he knows he is ready to work, helping children and their families at the Will County center.  |  Jane Donahue/For Sun-Times Media/Naperville Sun  20140114Tuesday,Montogmery
Jackson, 4, is the first Paws 4 Kids dog in the Will County program.  |  Jane Donahue~For Sun-Times Media

Facts

Did you know?

Therapy Dogs International is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions and wherever else therapy dogs are needed. Founded in 1976, it currently has nearly 25,000 dog/handler teams in all 50 states and Canada. To learn more, visit tdi-dog.org.

Learn more

To learn more about Paws 4 Kids, visit willcountychildrensadvocacy.org.

Jackson might be the most popular staff member at the Will County Children’s Advocacy Center, and with good reason. The 4-year-old therapy dog provides children — and their families — a source of comfort during a time when they need it most.

“Jackson is infinitely patient, calm and loving,” said Sue Bloch, executive director of the Will County Children’s Advocacy Center. “He is a perfect fit to greet and spend time with the children visiting the center.”

The Will County Children’s Advocacy Center was established in 1995 by State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow as a way to improve the way child abuse cases are investigated.

At the Joliet facility, trained staff members interview children when there are allegations of sexual or severe physical abuse. In 2012, Glasgow added Paws 4 Kids at the center, with the yellow Labrador retriever as the inaugural pooch.

“Dogs love children and children love dogs,” Glasgow said. “We try to do everything possible at the center to make the environment relaxed and home-like for the children so they are mentally and emotionally in the best position possible to give a statement about a horribly traumatic incident in their lives.”

Bloch agreed, and said Jackson helps more than the children who visit the center.

“The presence of a dog can have an immediate calming presence for the entire family,” Bloch said. “The use of a therapy dog fits perfect with the agency’s mission of providing a comfortable, safe environment to minimize trauma to the child.”

A job change

Originally trained to be a service dog, Jackson spent the first year of his life with Cheri and Kurt Johnson, of Joliet, before beginning formal training at Leader Dogs for the Blind. During the last decade, the couple has raised seven puppies for the Michigan-based nonprofit organization.

“We pick up the puppies from Leader Dogs when they are 7 weeks old and keep them for the next 12 to 14 months,” Johnson said. “We focus on obedience and socialization; we take the puppies everywhere and get them used to all different situations; so when they go back to begin their formal training to guide a blind person, they aren’t distracted by things they will encounter when working.”

But things didn’t go as planned for Jackson. After 3-1/2 months at Leader Dogs, the couple received a call regarding the pup’s need for “a career change.”

“Squirrels — he was too distracted by squirrels to safely guide a blind person,” Johnson said. “Leader Dogs offered him back to us, and we said ‘yes.’”

Thrilled to welcome him back, Johnson enrolled him in training to become a therapy dog, and once he was licensed, they began volunteering at a local hospital.

Shortly thereafter, Jackson added another job to his resume.

Glasgow was interested in starting a pet therapy program at the Children’s Advocacy Center. Johnson, who works for Glasgow as an executive assistant, suggested Jackson as a candidate.

He joined the team in 2012.

“I always say that Jackson was bred to be a guide dog and help one blind person, but he came back to me and now helps hundreds of children and families,” Johnson said. “My hope for the children is that they are able to relax and be comforted by Jackson on what is one of the most stressful days of their life. Jackson is there before and after the interview to snuggle and provide comfort.”

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Facts

Did you know?

Therapy Dogs International is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions and wherever else therapy dogs are needed. Founded in 1976, it currently has nearly 25,000 dog/handler teams in all 50 states and Canada. To learn more, visit tdi-dog.org.

Learn more

To learn more about Paws 4 Kids, visit willcountychildrensadvocacy.org.

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