Meeting Chieftan, the Therapy "Dogtor"

Occupational therapist, Alissa Swenar, rescued Chieftan, a 70-pound Point-Setter mix, from a shelter when he was nine months old.

Together they went through a rigorous training program through Therapy Dogs International. Chieftan earned a “Dogtor” certification that allows him to participate in physical and occupational rehabilitation sessions conducted by Swenar at our senior living and care communities. Swenar, has been bringing him to work with her since 2010 to offer animal-assisted therapy to older adults.

Swenar recalls a woman who was having trouble comprehending the need for rehabilitation therapy and was frustrated that it was so uncomfortable to stand. Swenar designed a program to entice her to work towards recovery in an engaging and appealing way. Swenar told her patient she could not pet Chieftan while sitting in a chair: so the woman stood up. By the end of her therapy, the patient and Chieftan had formed such a bond that she would stand for long periods to play with him, and he would play at activities, such as fetch, that he would normally have no interest in. They met in the middle and gave each other the companionship and healing they each needed.

“I didn’t realize the impact he would have,” remarks Swenar. “Patients return to visit him, and the people who live here talk about him to their families who then stop by to meet him.”

“I didn’t realize the impact he would have. Patients return to visit him & the people who live here talk about him to their families who then want to meet him.”

Occupational therapist, Alissa Swenar

Many staff members say he not only provides therapy to the patients, but to them as well.

When he is not working in the therapy department, he makes his rounds visiting employees and patients.

“His head is at the exact height of a person’s lap when sitting in a wheelchair - the perfect place to rest his head.”

Swenar said the dog also has a calming effect on memory care patients. They sometimes believe Chieftan is a dog from their past and treat him as their own. For many seniors, recovery after surgery or an injury is a grueling task that can be defeating. At Volunteers of America Autumnwood Care Center, Dogtor Chieftan makes physical and occupational rehabilitation enjoyable.

Instead of using a ball or other object for therapy, Swenar uses Chieftan, who adds enjoyment to what can be a repetitive and frustrating road to recovery. People who like dogs tend to work harder without knowing it. While they are working with Chieftan, they are bending and reaching to improve flexibility, strength and balance.

Chieftan is truly making a different in the lives on many.