SERVICE WITH A SMILE
Raising a puppy into adulthood for eventual adoption is a labor of love. For those with physical challenges, a service dog can provide independence, mobility and companionship. Guiding Eyes for the Blind gives individuals and families the opportunity to help make a huge impact in the lives of others by raising service puppies.
Foster families take in pups from the organization and nurture them for between twelve and sixteen months. The volunteers socialize the pups, teach them basic manners and expose them to situations from shopping to airports.
Patty Doyle is a Greenwich resident who is currently fostering her seventh pup for Guiding Eyes. In addition to raising five children, over the past decade she has been raising service dogs.
Patty explains that although it’s hard to raise a puppy only to say goodbye, the good work the dogs do makes it all worthwhile. (Seventy percent of Guiding Eyes foster homes are repeat raisers.) She also points out that the relationship doesn’t always end. One of her former fosters lives with a local blind woman, and she gets to visit with the dog several times a year.
The need for service dogs goes beyond the Guiding Eyes program, with some service dogs working as companions to individuals with diabetes, epilepsy and other serious medical challenges. Training can uncover that dogs are better suited for other work, and Guiding Eyes will place dogs with appropriate organizations. Some of the Doyle dogs have gone on to work as K-9 dog sniffers or as studs for future service dogs.
Foster families typically raise a puppy by working with trainers (sometimes virtually) and focus on socialization, exposure to a variety of settings and basic manners. Not sure you’re ready to raise a puppy? Guiding Eyes offers interested volunteers other opportunities, such as hosting puppies for short visits to increase their socialization. guidingeyes.org
Not everyone can tackle raising a service dog, but with some work a household pup can be trained as a therapy dog. It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between a service dog and a therapy dog. Therapy dogs have no special rights and are considered pets. They are allowed into places such as schools, libraries and nursing homes with prearranged visits.
Training and certifying a dog to be a therapy dog takes some time and often comes down to temperament. Just as every pup raised through the Guiding Eyes won’t graduate into service placement, not every dog is well suited to be a therapy dog.
The initial step to certification begins with basic dog training. Beyond good manners, a therapy dog typically requires advanced training. Organizations like Alliance for Therapy Dogs (ATD) require applicants to undergo a background check. After screening, applicants can apply for ATD membership and find a local tester/observer. The vetting process for ATD is thorough, and dogs must be evaluated to verify their qualifications.
Videos of testing and a list of criteria is on the website, making the process transparent and easy to understand. ATD is just one of many certification options. Check out local dog training services and organizations like the American Kennel Club (AKC) for information on the Canine Good Citizen Certification process. If you’re looking to bring a therapy dog into a specific location, such as a nursing home or school, reach out to learn what certification it requires. therapydogs.com; akc.org
Helping kids overcome anxiety—one book at a time
Author Christina Pellegrino used her transformative experiences with her therapy dog to help children talk about their struggles with fear in the children’s book Buster and The Brain Bully. This rhyming story, with heartwarming illustrations by Teresa Alberini, addresses anxiety through the eyes of a golden retriever. Christina and Buster work with facilities and organizations throughout the tri-state area visiting schools and hospitals.
“This is a passion project for me, above anything else,” says Christina. “I really want to open up the mental health conversation—get people to be more comfortable talking about when they have that inner struggle and they’re not understanding what’s happening, especially as a kid.”
We asked the author about getting Buster started as a therapy dog and their journey together.
GM: How did you become involved in working with therapy dogs?
CP: It all happened pretty organically. The idea initially popped into my head when I would watch Buster at my grandmother’s dog-friendly assisted living facility. I saw how wonderful he was, so gentle, and most importantly, the joy he brought to the residents. Him just walking down the hall was all it took to make peoples’ day. He brought light into a place that’s often filled with sadness.
From there, we were sponsored by VITAS, a hospice organization, and became a part of its Paw Pals program. We would visit patients at an assisted living facility along with one of its staff members. It was such a rewarding experience that I decided I wanted to get officially certified, so we had freedom to visit different facilities.
GM: Tell us about your experiences with Buster.
CP: There have been so many unbelievable experiences. Buster adapts to the different environments so effortlessly, it truly amazes me. In the hospital setting, some of our most memorable experiences include helping a woman through a panic attack, watching an elderly man sit up for the first time in days leaving the doctor and family in amazement, helping a child through physical therapy, and visiting with cancer patients while they receive infusions.
For our reading program at the library, we quickly developed our “regulars” who would come read to Buster every month. These visits are set up as one-on-one reading. In schools, we work with first, second, third and fourth graders.
GM: If someone is inspired to have their dog certified, what suggestions do you have?
CP: Expose them to as much as you can at an early age. It will only help prepare them. Develop a strong bond with your dog; this is incredibly important. Having a mutual trust will set you up to be a successful team. Dogs pick up on our energy, and the number one rule in therapy dog work is advocating for your dog. Not every environment will suit them, so you want to make sure it᾿s an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs evaluates, tests and trains owners and dogs as therapy teams. goldens-dog.org
Dog Gone Smart in Norwalk offers an Intermediate/Canine Good Citizen course and a Therapy Dog Skills class that allows dogs to acclimate to walkers, wheelchairs and crutches. doggonesmart.com
Guiding Eyes for the Blind connects foster families with potential service dogs and also offers opportunities to people who may not want to foster but would like to volunteer in some capacity. guidingeyes.org
Pet Partners is a national organization with chapters in central Connecticut and New York City that coordinates visits between owner/pet teams and patients in recovery, seniors, students and veterans. petpartners.org
Port Chester Obedience Club provides Canine Good Citizen Certification and Therapy Dog Training. Dogs that obtain a CGC certificate can go on to obtain the AKC Community Canine certification, an advanced level of the CGC program. pcotc.org; akc.org
Reading Education Assistance Dogs utilizes dog/owner therapy teams to help children improve literacy and communication skills. therapyanimals.org/read