Chad Burgess wakes up extra early on mornings when he is scheduled to visit University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
That’s because it takes two hours to bathe, brush and groom Gopher, his four-legged golden retriever partner. Gopher, a registered therapy dog, is a regular at the hospital. For the last seven years, he and his human handler have provided therapy sessions at locations across the Twin Cities area. Together, they have logged more than 2,500 volunteer hours and 8,500 patient interactions in Twin Cities healthcare facilities, including Masonic Children’s Hospital.
No two days at the hospital are the same for Chad and Gopher. Often, Gopher, a Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.), is stationed in the hospital’s Family Resource Center, where he serves as a non-judgmental audience for children practicing their reading skills. Other times, he and Chad pay visits to patients in their hospital rooms.
Therapy animal visits can provide a welcome distraction from the day-to-day hardships many hospitalized patients face and are physically beneficial as well, Burgess said. For example, Gopher can help alleviate stress, lower anxiety and blood pressure and provide a safe outlet for patients and family members.
This is what drove Chad to volunteer and enlist Gopher as a therapy dog.
“It’s really the simplest thing: I can help make the world a better place by doing this,” Chad said, when asked about his passion for volunteering.
Training your dog to become a therapy dog is hard work, but Burgess believes the benefits outweigh all the costs substantially. He heartily encourages people to volunteer.
“Right now, there is more demand than there is volunteers,” Chad said. Both he and his wife, Carla, have volunteer dogs. Chad works with Gopher. Carla’s dog, Squirrel, is a search-and-rescue dog.
In addition to the training, it is important for therapy dog handlers to form a bond with their canine counterparts—and to trust the animal’s instincts.
Early in his volunteer career, Chad and Gopher visited a long-term care facility. The therapy session started off normally, but quickly became unusual when Gopher—in spite of his training—began gravitating toward one child receiving care at the facility.
“Usually Gopher is very good at responding to my subtle hand gestures or cues,” Burgess said.
Burgess uses these signals to instruct Gopher to give every child or patient an equal amount of attention. But this time, Gopher didn’t listen; he just stayed by one patient’s side and wouldn’t move.
“This made me embarrassed as a handler, because I’m the one who’s supposed to control these situations” Chad said. He then had to instruct the other kids to follow Gopher in order to get time with the dog.
The next week, Chad and Gopher returned to the facility for their usual session. This time, Gopher behaved. He responded to hand gestures and gave all the children in the group the same attention.
As, Chad and Gopher were leaving their session for the day, a patient’s parent approached Chad.
“Do you think Gopher knew? Do you think he knew how sick that boy was last week?” the parent asked.
Confused, Chad asked the parent to explain. He quickly learned the child whose side Gopher refused to leave had passed away later that week.
“From then on I knew I had to trust Gopher and his instincts,” Chad said. Since then, the bond between handler and therapy dog has grown exponentially.“It’s not about me, it’s about Gopher and how exceptional qualities. I know I’ll never have a partner quite like him again.”