COUNCIL BLUFFS – Valentine’s Day was special for the volunteers at the Pottawattamie County Animal Shelter and a Carroll man who, when he was a resident of Des Moines in July of 1999, was told that he had less than a 20 percent chance of surviving a vicious beating.
If he beat the odds and survived the beating, Mark Skillen’s chances of living a normal life were even slimmer. The assault, carried out by individuals wielding pipes and 2-by-4s, crushed the left side of his face and drove skull fragments into his brain.
Skillen spent six months in a Des Moines hospital. Those six months were followed by 18 months of outpatient care at Madonna Rehab in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was during those 18 months that Skillen was introduced to the therapy dogs brought in to visit patients.
He is quick to credit the role of those dogs in his recovery and, equally important, helping him find a new purpose in his life.
“I didn’t think about the pain as much when I was with the animals,” said Skillen, who had always been fond of animals. “The dog helped me set goals: ‘I’m going to get better, and I’m going to get a dog.’ And I wanted to pay it forward.”
He said getting a dog of his own was a crucial part of getting back on his feet, of being successful in relearning independence.
In order to fulfill that goal of paying it forward, he had Molly, a black Labrador he’d obtained from a rescue in Des Moines, trained as a therapy dog. Molly began working in 2001 after Skillen moved to Carroll. Before her death at age 12 she had made 950 documented visits to nursing homes, hospices, schools and hospitals. His second therapy, Maxwell, a gray Weimaraner, racked up 750 documented visits before he became ill and died in August of 2014.
While dealing with the loss of Molly and then Maxwell, Skillen and his wife, Mindy, learned from Mindy’s parents that two husky puppies by been picked up by Pottawattamie County Animal Control officers in the southeastern part of the county on Sept. 2, 2014. Named Ivan and Leo by animal control officers, the two puppies were available for adoption at the Pottawattamie County Animal Shelter.
Skillen said it was Mindy who convinced him he should resume his pet-therapy mission. Mindy’s encouragement resulted in the decision to adopt Ivan on Sept. 19. Since Ivan and Leo were picked up as strays, their exact age is unknown; but Skillen thinks Ivan’s birthday was around Valentine’s Day of 2014.
Unlike Molly and Maxwell, both of which were certified by Therapy Dogs International, Ivan was trained locally and has passed testing by the American Kennel Club as a Canine Good Citizen.
Canine Good Citizen testing looks at a number of areas – all of which are crucial for therapy dogs – including accepting a friendly stranger, sitting politely for petting, allowing basic grooming procedures, walking on a loose lead, walking through a crowd, sitting and lying down on command and staying in place, coming when called, reacting appropriately to another dog, reacting appropriately to distractions and calmly enduring supervised separation from the owner.
Since its inception in 1989, the American Kennel Club’s CGC program has become the model for similar programs around the world and is the backbone of other exams, such as those given for therapy dogs.
Skillen said the main goal for therapy dogs is to provide emotional support for people, and he’s quick to note that Ivan’s personality makes him a natural for pet therapy.
Ivan is a frequent visitor to third- and fourth-grade classrooms at Carroll Community Schools.
“I’m a tool for teachers,” Skillen said. “Ivan brings a comfort level to kids, especially those who are having behavioral issues, who are experiencing difficulties reading and those with speech impediments.
“A child uncomfortable reading in front of a group might feel a lot more comfortable reading to a dog. The dog removes that stress, the barriers that the child needs to overcome. Dogs are non-judgmental.”
Ivan continues the work started by Molly and Maxwell at hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and schools. And he’s a frequent visitor to the Carroll Public Library where’s he’s often read to by children.
Vicki Dentlinger, activity director at Thomas Rest Home in Coon Rapids where Ivan visits twice a month, said Ivan is really good with the residents there.
“They just love him. He climbs right up on them, and they love it,” she said. “They love to pet him and hold him and snuggle with him. Some of the residents would sleep with Ivan if they could. He brings back a lot of favorite memories for many of them.”
Like Dentlinger, Diane Tracy, a staff member at the Carroll Community Library, offered high praise for the work that Skillen and Ivan are doing.
“Ivan comes in twice a week, and the kids read to him,” Tracy said. “The dog entices them to practice their reading. He’s non-judgmental, and he offers that companionship that nothing but a dog can give. For kids who might be struggling with their reading, Ivan offers companionship and moral support.
“We have one little girl who comes here who loves dogs but doesn’t have one. She gets her ‘dog fix’ from Ivan. Her little sister is afraid of dogs, and Ivan is helping her overcome that fear.”
Skillen is quick to praise the efforts of those who volunteer at animal shelters and rescues.
“I have so much respect for the people who work at the Pottawattamie County Animal Shelter,” he said.
Tracy, the Carroll library staffer, echoed his remark.
“It’s great to be able to rescue an animal and use them in so positive a way,” she said.