Watching 7-year-old Diana Montes with Toby the Golden Retriever, it’s easy to see there’s still good in the world.
Diana dropped her crutch and hobbled slowly toward Toby, a treat in her small hands. Everyone standing around this little girl held their breath. Tears sprung into their eyes.
Diana, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), was barely able to walk until she met Toby. Now, she can walk with a small crutch and give the dog commands.
“It’s so wonderful to see the progress these dogs are making with the children. The bond is indescribable,” said Sallee O’Brien, a volunteer with the County’s Paws’itive Team, a group of volunteers and therapy dogs who work with children in Escondido.
O’Brien and fellow volunteer Carol Birch were recently honored at the County’s Volunteer Recognition Ceremony for their hard work and dedication. The Escondido pilot program will now be expanded to other medical therapy units within the County, starting in El Cajon.
“Helping to improve their motor skills is one of the main goals, but seeing the smiles on these kids’ faces, as they gain more confidence is priceless,” O’Brien said.
Diana placed the treat gently on Toby’s nose, and backed up several steps. Then she belted out her command: “Go!”
With a single motion, Toby flipped the treat off his nose, into the air and into his mouth.
Allison Medina, a 7-year-old diagnosed with cerebral palsy, clapped her hands in delight as she watched Diana’s success from a few feet away.
Allison urged her pink walker forward ever so slightly. She was eager to work with her therapy dog, Moya, and she seemed barely able to contain her excitement.
Moya, a 120-pound Leonberger, a German dog as large as a lion, was hooked up to a small cart and Allison practiced her balance as Moya pulled the cart around a cement circle. First, Allison sat strapped into the cart, and then she stood, with a volunteer on each side to keep her from falling. For anyone, this task would be difficult.
“Allison used to have a lot of tremors, which would affect her movement, but now, after working with Moya, she has been able to get her tremors under control,” said Allison’s mother, Alma Medina.
“I can’t describe the effect these dogs have had on her. She is so excited to see Moya; it’s like I’m looking at a different child since the therapy,” Medina said.
The children are always asking for the dogs to come back, and the dogs get excited to see the kids, too, Birch said. Dogs can read the children’s non-verbal cues, which help them to connect on a different level than we do with people.
The kids also have a lot to say about their furry friends.
“The best thing that I like is when I tell Toby to do something, he does it. He’s so intelligent,” said Diana.
Allison smiled and nodded in agreement.
The therapy session over, Diana’s mother took the girl’s hand. It was time to go back to school.
Diana didn’t want to go.
“I want to stay here with Toby. I love him,” Diana said.
The children’s time with the dogs improves their balance and motor skills. But perhaps just as important is the chance to be friends with a dog and just be an ordinary kid.