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For some, working like a dog isn’t a bad thing at all. Just ask Darlene Gosnell of Fishers. She’ll tell you that working dogs can save lives.

Gosnell is the executive director of TheraPets of Indiana, a nonprofit corporation that provides animal-assisted therapies to patients in all kinds of medical facilities. She’s a firm believer in the power of pets, and she’s seen a number of medical miracles in person. In fact, Gosnell gets to cuddle up with one little miracle each night — her 13-year-old cairn terrier named Molly.

Gosnell, a former special education teacher, was forced to retire in 2000 after a tragic car accident. She suffered a number of traumas in the wreck, including a traumatic brain injury. During her rehabilitation, a neuropsychologist suggested a pet. Gosnell followed the doctor’s orders, and that’s when she brought home the 4-month-old pup. Molly then became an integral part of Gosnell’s recovery process.

The pup’s companionship was therapeutic. Molly kept Gosnell moving, guided her and reminded her when to take her medication.

“My doctors saw how Molly has helped me,” Gosnell said. “So they asked me to bring her to help others.”

And that’s how TheraPets of Indiana was formed. Under Gosnell’s lead, TheraPets has grown to include a “staff” of 26 dogs — all cairn terriers and West Highland white terriers — and a network of volunteers all dedicated to helping people get better. TheraPets works almost exclusively with St. Vincent Health and provides therapy in all kinds of health care facilities, from emergency rooms to hospice care.

“Our dogs are trained to provide assistance in therapy in all kinds of situations,” Gosnell said. “Each dog has a specialty.”

That means that some dogs, like Molly, are trained to help those in intensive care situations. Others are trained to specialize in disaster response and psychiatric care, to interact with Alzheimer’s patients, and much more. Gosnell said that a few dogs are even specially trained to help with bereavement.

“We don’t want anyone to die alone,” Gosnell said. A handful of TheraPets dogs and handlers are trained to offer care and companionship to those in hospice care. That’s what McIntosh, a 21-pound cairn who goes by his nickname Big Mac, does best.

Gosnell said that Big Mac is content to stay with someone until the end, just letting the patient feel his heartbeat and providing comfort. Families have even requested that Big Mac and other therapy dogs stay with their loved ones through the funeral and viewing.

Molly and Big Mac are part of the original six TheraPets dogs, who were purchased from breeders. Since then, though, Gosnell and her volunteers have focused on rescuing and rehabilitating dogs before training them to become therapy pets. She now works with breed-specific rescue groups to save potential therapy dogs who might have been abandoned, abused or unwanted and have ended up in shelters across the country.

Through their rescue work, Gosnell and TheraPets volunteers have helped a dog who lost an eye from a blunt-force trauma see her true purpose as a healer and even helped a three-legged dog learn to navigate the halls of a hospital. For the most part, though, Gosnell said she prefers to work with young dogs under 6 months of age. The training process begins right away and can be intense, including both obedience training and “paws on” work with a mentor dog in a hospital setting.

And though the process can be taxing, it’s all worth it. Gosnell has seen hundreds of success stories over the years, but she said the most touching tale is that of a then-14-year-old cheerleader from Carmel named Jessica. Gosnell said Jessica and her family have given permission to share their story.

“Jessica had been in a coma for almost five weeks and was in the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit,” Gosnell said. “She had a serious respiratory illness and had even stopped breathing a few times. I took Molly in to see her and gave her the command to ‘stimulate.’ Molly began licking the left side of Jessica’s body, and all of a sudden, Jessica opened her eyes and smiled. That was in 2004. Since then, Jessica has fully recovered. She recently finished a master’s degree at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and is still a volunteer with TheraPets.”

For more information about TheraPets of Indiana, including donations and volunteer information, visit therapetsofindiana.org.

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