Therapy dog makes life brighter for special needs kids

  • Posted: Saturday, February 16, 2013 11:04 p.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, February 17, 2013 2:49 p.m.
Photo by Scott Rodgers
This sign above Steve and Doris Briggs' door, is a tribute to their former dog, Cara Mia, who passed away of cancer.
Photo by Scott Rodgers This sign above Steve and Doris Briggs' door, is a tribute to their former dog, Cara Mia, who passed away of cancer.

Steve Briggs and his therapy dog, Serena, may both be getting a little grayer, but that hasn’t slowed them down.

Briggs and Serena were recently featured in the documentary “Paw Prints: Serena’s Story” that premiered last year. It was produced over the span of one week in 2010 and followed the pair as they made therapy visits throughout North Augusta and Aiken.

Serena, a German shepherd mix, who was a Molly’s Militia dog, was adopted following the death of Briggs’ 11-year-old Australian shepherd. His wife, while looking through the Aiken Standard, found Serena and adopted her.

“It’s a very heartwarming example of thousands of shelter dogs that have touched many people’s lives,” said Elaine van der Linden, founder and director of Molly’s Militia.

Toward the end of the film, Briggs noted that Serena would have to scale back a bit. Now that she is 9 or 10, according to Briggs, he has started the first phases of doing that. He notes that he started cutting out visits to nursing homes and hospital visits, focusing solely on kids and veterans.

Due to Serena’s certification, which is the highest from the Delta Society, complex, she is allowed to go into many situations that other animals cannot. This means that Briggs tries to go places where Serena is the only dog to try and give as many people exposure to therapy dogs as possible.

“She’s capable of working at any level, no matter how complex it is,” he said. “... It means she is eligible to work under the most adverse circumstances, and the most unpredictable environments.”

His work at the local schools, however, is what brings him some of the great joy.

“Mr. Briggs is a special person to our classroom in more ways than I can count. When he visits with Serena, the children’s eyes light up,” said Uyen Griffis, a special needs teacher at Hammond Hill Elementary. “Serena comes in with such calmness and patience. Our children are able to talk, some using gestures and picture symbols, to Serena, pat her gently on the head, and show the teacher her ears, eyes and nose. She allows the children to walk with her and always has a gentle kiss for anyone. Mr. Briggs talks with the children about their day and what they are learning. This helps improve their communication skills and interaction with adults.”

Briggs worked with Griffis when she taught at Clearwater and then followed her to Hammond Hill. The respect between the two is mutual, and Griffis has found that Serena also adds to the class each time that she visits.

“She makes learning fun and enjoyable for them. Serena is so well-mannered and docile, she allows the children to count her toes, tug at her ears and showcase their fine motor craft projects to her,” Griffis said. “Mr. Briggs’ kindness and giving ways are special not only for our classroom, but to everyone at Hammond Hill. Everyone knows Mr. Briggs and Serena, and they always elicit a welcoming smile and a wave. There aren’t enough words to describe what Mr. Briggs and Serena mean to us, but they fill our hearts with joy.”

It is a sentiment that is echoed at North Augusta Elementary.

“She does a lot with the non-verbal kids,” said Emily Johnston, a teacher at North Augusta Elementary. “She also helps a lot with proximity. They like to get close to her and they’re normally trying to get away from us. The kids will sometimes make eye contact with Serena, and then, in those moments, I can also get some of the eye contact. The kids also enjoy including her in circle time and singing to her. They love having the chance to show off their abilities and dance. There are no words to describe both her and Mr. Briggs, who interacts with the kids just as much, and how much we appreciate them.”

It is an improbable story, as Briggs is a two-time cancer survivor. He also suffered congestive heart failure in January 2011. The end of the documentary shows photos of Serena visiting Briggs. His wife had convinced the nurses at University Health to allow a dog on the cardiac care floor. It’s a moment that still makes him tear up to this day.

“It was really amazing, no one wants to be in the hospital. I don’t even like going to the dentist. When the doctor comes around, you’re just thinking, ‘Is it more bad news?’ and your mind runs away with it,” he said. “Sure you sleep and you rest, but having her next to me on the bed brought tears to my eyes and allowed me some peace that I wouldn’t of had otherwise.”

Conveniently enough, at the very same time, a few doors down was van der Linden, who was suffering from the same ailment.

“It was just awesome. I had no idea Steve was even there until one of the nurses started talking about a gentleman having a book that featured a dog from Molly’s Militia,” she said, tearing up while remembering the moment. “It was a miracle because it was as though one of the dogs I had rescued had come, in a sense, to rescue me. It was right before I was scheduled to have a cardiac catheterization. You couldn’t of planned it any better if you had tried.”

Briggs plans to retire Serena at some point from making visits, though he isn’t sure when that day will come. Currently, however, he is working with one of his other dogs, Lady, to become a therapy dog. It’s unlikely that she will be able to do the things Serena does, Briggs notes, it’s all about finding the fit for the dog instead of making the dog fit.

“She has passed the first part on obedience and she has to go on three visits, the first of which she has already made and passed,” Briggs said. “She won’t be as high ranking as Serena, but everyone’s children don’t get the same degree either. So I have to find what she’s best suited at, and we don’t know until we try.”

Serena will be honored on March 24 at the Aiken SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare for her contributions in the community at the Volunteer Appreciation and Awards Picnic. As far as future goals are concerned, Briggs notes that he wants to continue working with children and start bringing Lady into schools.

He also stresses the importance of controlling the pet population and volunteering to be a foster home, something that van der Linden knows all too well.

“One of the proudest moments in my life was when I was at the premiere for the film and saw, in HD, the difference that one dog can make,” she said. “Serena is a very special dog, and not every dog can be a therapy dog, but each of them is special. We can always use foster homes and volunteers.”

Those interested in purchasing a DVD can do so for $10 through the Aiken SPCA website at http://www.fotasaiken.org/Serena_DVD.html.

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