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‘Old soul’ learns new tricks

Maddie, an 8-year-old golden retriever, went blind from a sudden condition in 2014. Owner Moni Ostberg said it didn’t take long before the dog was re-registered and joining her on pet therapy visits through Mayo Clinic Health System’s Caring Canines program. (Republican Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

People’s eyes seem to light up when Maddie enters a room, but the 8-year-old Golden Retriever isn’t able to see the reactions herself.

The registered therapy dog went blind in January 2014 from sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome or SARDS. Despite the disability, Maddie continues to bring comfort to hospice patients through Mayo Clinic Health System’s Caring Canines program, owner Moni Ostberg of Red Wing said.

“Her whole personality disappeared,” Ostberg recalled of Maddie’s unexpected vision loss, which meant an end to her service less than a year after being registered.

But you can’t keep a good dog down.

After a few months to adapt to a life of blindness, Ostberg said Maddie was re-registered and is once again accompanying her on pet therapy visits.

“(Maddie) assimilated so incredibly well,” said Molly Johnson, who provides therapy dog training and program development through her company, Canine Comfort.

“When I first met Maddie there was something very different about her,” Johnson said. “She’s one of those old souls that want to be out there.”

Ostberg — whose husband, John, and the couple’s other golden retriever, Maggie Rose, have also gone through pet therapy training — said it’s an honor and great responsibility to provide solace to those in need.

“We were told a client might ask you if they’re dying, and if you’re comfortable with that,” she said of training sessions with nurses and social workers prior to volunteering. “You have to be comfortable with it; they said never lie or sugarcoat it.”

Sessions with a therapy dog, which are done on referral, typically last 10-20 minutes, Ostberg said. Handlers are trained to look for animal stress signs such as licking lips or yawning to determine when to call it quits.

Depending on the client, Ostberg said she will sometimes return to the room once the dog has left to read or play card games.

Benefits of the therapy dog program include expanded communication, distraction from pain, socialization and reduced anxiety and stress, according to Mayo Clinic Health System.

Many of her clients have dementia, and bringing in Maddie can make an immediate difference in their mood, Ostberg said.

“They’re like a child at Christmas,” she added. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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