Rikki the Golden Retriever: The Hardest-Working Dog in Therapy
By Angel Limb
It has been said that dogs are man’s best friend, probably because dogs are intelligent, funny, and loyal. Some dogs also have a discerning, compassionate personality that benefits humans on a deeper level. Julie Strauss Bettinger’s book, Encounters with Rikki: From Hurricane Katrina Rescue to Exceptional Therapy Dog, tells how hurting people found strength in a therapy dog whose only fee was hugs and baby carrots.
Rikki was a sickly Golden Retriever pup when she found a home with Chuck and Patty Mitchell of Tallahassee, Florida, after the Mitchells opened their home to dogs who had survived Hurricane Katrina. They saw that Rikki had eating problems, soiled her cage, and was afraid of loud sounds and rain. With Chuck and Patty’s care, Rikki overcame Katrina’s travails and the experiences of multiple animal shelters. After her obedience training, the Mitchells knew that Rikki preferred human interaction over dog fun. Her keen sense of human emotional needs and Chuck’s guidance helped her to train as a courthouse therapy dog. Under Chuck’s supervision, Rikki comforted sexually-abused children as they described their ordeals in Florida courts.
For seven year-old Zoe, sexually abused at about age five by a family friend, meeting Rikki helped her discuss her abuse. By giving the dog carrots and touching her, Zoe relaxed and gave graphic details of her predator’s actions to Rikki and court officials. That child-dog bond convinced a victim advocate that Zoe would be a better witness in Rikki’s presence. Bettinger writes that “…Zoe’s case would be groundbreaking: it was the first time an animal therapy team had ever been used in a Florida deposition.”
While Zoe’s case was a first in Florida, it was the beginning of more jobs for Rikki. She became a Reading Education Assistance Dog (READ), and with Patty Mitchell, helped children boost their reading skills in Florida’s Leon County schools. Rikki’s patience and lack of criticism made her an attentive listener to whom the children like to read. According to the author, being with a calm dog lowers a child’s blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety.
In addition to her work with children, Rikki also provided adult therapy in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Accompanied by Chuck, Rikki engaged and calmed adults dealing with strokes, multiple personality disorders, etc. Bettinger writes movingly about Betsy, a woman with traumatic brain injury from a car crash. “With the electronic circuitry [of Betsy’s brain] all confused, Rikki’s touch was like a lightning rod, grounding Betsy’s thoughts.” Betsy says Rikki was an integral part of her recovery and that “…part of my ‘coming back’… was a soft, moist nuzzle in the palm of my hand.”
Encounters with Rikki: From Hurrican Katrina Rescue to Exceptional Therapy Dog is sometimes hard to read due to the abuse descriptions warned of before the story begins. Despite those difficult passages, Julie Strauss Bettinger has written a winner about the social bonds disparate beings create and how all are better because of them.
Encounters with Rikki will be published January 26.