Amputee therapy dog helps humans cope with illness

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

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Tractor, above and pictured with his owner Steven Hietpas of Lusby, is a therapy dog. Tractor had a leg amputated and now visits humans who are either facing a similar situation or those who are amputees.


Tractor is a beautiful 8-year-old Sheltie that loves people.

Tractor’s early life wasn’t a happy one. His owner beat and abused him. He somehow got away from this vicious owner, and was found, cold and hungry, in a ditch in Pennsylvania. He also was missing one of his front legs.

Luckily, he was taken in by a Sheltie rescue organization, and then adopted by Steven Hietpas, who lives in Lusby.

‘‘The leg was so smoothly cut off the veterinarian said it looked like a surgical removal. It didn’t look like he’d been hit by a car,” Hietpas said.

Tractor got his unusual name because, Hietpas says, ‘‘With only one front leg, he looked to me like one of the old Allis-Chalmer tractors, which have two small front wheels like a tricycle.”

Tractor is a dog with a job: he is a therapy dog. He, Hietpas and Hietpas’s friend, Sheree Stamps, are a team of volunteers with a mission to brighten the lives of humans who are amputees, or who are coping with serious, chronic illnesses. This team – also known as Tractor, Hippy, and Birdie – makes regular weekly visits to patients in the Transitional Care Unit of Calvert Memorial Hospital. They work with Wendy Rezza, the TCU activities director, and Scarlett Schall, who is a registered nurse.

Schall is a case manager on the hospital’s nursing staff. She is also a founder of a local support group for amputees. Amputees Helping Amputees (AHA) is a non-profit organization that meets once a month at the hospital.

AHA is not limited to the Calvert or the Southern Maryland area. Schall confirms that membership is free to any amputee who wants to join, although donations are greatly appreciated. The monthly meetings in the hospital are for education, information, and support for amputees and their families.

‘‘Life is not over after amputation. It’s just different,” Schall said. ‘‘The public has to get over the idea that an amputation means the end of any kind of social life or work life.”

Tractor is an important member of AHA, and goes to all the meetings. At the AHA Christmas party last year, the festivities didn’t start until Tractor arrived.

‘‘When Tractor came in, it was like a Hollywood premier. There were screams, cheers and clapping,” Hietpas laughed.

When amputees see this little dog cheerfully lurching along on three legs, it encourages them to learn to work within their physical limitations and regain control of their lives. Tractor’s example is especially helpful with child amputees. Tractor likes people and seems to have a special empathy for anyone with an illness, but – like most dogs – he really loves children.

‘‘Tractor helped a 12-year-old boy get a different attitude to an amputation he had to undergo. He has a rare congenital bone disorder that required removing one of his legs below the knee. He and his parents were naturally very depressed and fearful about this upcoming operation. A visit with Tractor gave them the courage to believe that life could be good again after the amputation. The boy could see that he could participate in sports again, but on a different level. Having to give up sports after his amputation was one of his chief worries,” Hietpas said.

Depression is an ever-looming issue in patients with long-term, debilitating illnesses. Seeing and petting therapy animals gives patients’ spirits a lift, and not just children’s spirits. The team of Tractor, Hippy and Birdie have seen some pretty remarkable changes in patients during their weekly visits to the hospital’s TCU.

‘‘I knew it would make a difference, but I didn’t expect it to be so profound,” Hietpas said. ‘‘Dogs make a connection with people that is nothing short of miraculous. We’ll walk into a [hospital] room, and the atmosphere will be very flat. Patients don’t smile, often won’t respond much to humans, but they’ll talk after seeing Tractor. They’ll tell us all about the pets they’ve had, going back to when they were kids. The most astonishing change was a stroke victim who couldn’t put more than one or two words together. She began to speak in sentences, she was so moved when interacting with Tractor.”

Tractor is an exceptional dog. He hasn’t had any special training in therapy techniques. He was severely traumatized after his years of living with his abusive former owner, and then the anxiety of being adopted by a stranger. It took awhile for Tractor to adjust to his new life with his kind new owners, and a secure and comfortable home.

Hietpas had him for two years before contacting Wendy Rezza at the hospital. Somehow, despite his early life, Tractor has a sweet temperament and deep empathy with people who are living through very rough times.

‘‘He’ll walk into a patient’s room and put his paw on the bed. If the patient will allow it, he’ll get up and lie in the bed. The more serious the illness, the more Tractor seems to want to stay with them,” Hietpas said.

There are special certificate programs for training therapy animals, but Rezza doesn’t insist that the animals have any therapy training for hospital visits. She makes her decision based upon face-to-face interviews with the animal and the owners.

‘‘Some dogs are friendly, but don’t have the right temperament for this kind of interaction. Once in a while we’ve had to turn down a volunteer for the therapy because of the owner, not the dog. Despite their best intentions, some people find it very upsetting to be around seriously ill patients. It’s too traumatic for them, not their dog,” Rezza said. ‘‘We find that it’s therapy for the hospital staff as well as the patients, to have a dog like Tractor visit.

‘‘Everyone wants to stop to say hello and pet him,” she added. ‘‘The Calvert Memorial Hospital is committed to helping its patients and the county residents achieve good health. Mr. Xinis [Jim Xinis, CMH President and CEO] is very supportive of any suggestions we make that might improve a patient’s healing and long-term health,” Rezza said.

She also noted that ‘‘The hospital is very progressive and open to alternative therapies as well as the established medical treatments.”

More and more hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes are discovering the great benefits that animal therapy brings to their patients or residents. Last Saturday’s Washington Post (March 29) had a front-page story about a two-legged dog that travels the country for therapy visits.

Photos and a video of this phenomenal dog are at

Therapy animals like Tractor make this writer think of a quote from Roger Cara, the former president of the ASPCA: ‘‘Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”

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