After the devastating school shooting in Newtown, Conn., a team of specialists descended on the town to offer its support.
The team was made up of counselors specially trained to respond to crisis situations — along with their handlers.
The counselors were several golden retrievers, each trained as a therapy dog. The dogs sat with adults and children alike and offered comfort without judgment in a town marred by tragedy.
“They’re like furry counselors,’’ Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities in Addison, Ill., told NBC. Hetzner’s organization sent the dogs to help in Connecticut. “They’re here to bring unconditional love and comfort and compassion to people. It helps [people] cope with their grief.”
Right here in Central New York, dogs do similar work on a regular basis. Sunshine Friends Inc. (SFI) provides training for therapy dogs (and cats) and leads excursions to schools, nursing homes and the Golisano Children’s Hospital.
“Therapy dogs provide comfort, humor and affection to those who need it the most,” said SFI President Danielle Basciano. “There are a variety of ways in which therapy dogs can be used to improve a person’s quality of life, but the common thread is the unconditional and non-judgmental affection a therapy dog provides.”
A therapy dog is a dog trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, people with learning disabilities and survivors of tragedies like hurricanes, tornadoes and events like Newtown. Any breed of dog can be a therapy dog, provided they have the right temperament; a good therapy dog must be friendly, patient, confident, gentle and at ease in all situations. Therapy dogs must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily.
Significant research has demonstrated that interacting with therapy dogs can increase the hormones oxytocin and dopamine, increasing the person’s happiness, while lowering the stress hormone cortisol.
Therapy dogs are not service or assistance dogs. Service dogs, like seeing-eye dogs, directly assist humans and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas. Therapy dogs, because they don’t provide that kind of assistance, aren’t allowed in the same wide variety of areas as service dogs.
SFI was founded in 1998 by three women who had been volunteering in a similar group that disbanded. The organization was incorporated as a non-profit in February 1999.
“We started out with about 10 volunteers visiting four facilities, and we had to work hard to convince facilities that bringing dogs and cats in was a good idea,” Basciano said. “Now we have close to 200 volunteers visiting over 50 facilities in five counties.”
Originally, the intent of SFI was to provide an evaluation of therapy dogs to ensure they were suited to the pursuit. The training itself was left to the owners.
“After many inquiries wondering where training for therapy dog work could be accomplished, we decided to develop our own training program to meet the need,” Basciano said.
The group began its most recent training session Tuesday, Jan. 15, at the Cicero Animal Clinic on Route 31. During the five-week session, dogs and their owners were trained in the basic skills needed to be a successful therapy dog, such as loose leash walking, focus through distraction, sitting on command, responsiveness to the handler, maneuvering around medical apparatus and more.
“We also teach students how to recognize and handle stress in their dogs, how to work through any fears the dog may have and how to know when their dog has had enough,” Basciano said.
Basciano, a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, is the lead trainer, and she works with several other professionals to provide the training. Though there is no standardized criteria for therapy dog programs, all of SFI’s staff is experienced in both evaluation and instruction.
Each class is one hour and covers a different topic or series of topics. Attendees have the option of taking all five classes or just the ones that cover topics they are interested in. Basciano said about 90 percent of participants choose to take all of the classes.
Once a dog has been fully trained, SFI also provides the evaluation to ensure that the dog is ready to become a therapy dog. While participation in the classes is not required to obtain an evaluation, Basciano said many choose to take them in order to either brush up on particular skills or because they don’t feel qualified to train their dogs on their own. The evaluation is mandatory in order to receive certification, as are an orientation meeting and supervised visits in an applied setting.
While many dogs glide through the evaluation, some just aren’t suited to becoming therapy dogs.
“[It’s difficult] when someone really wants their dog to do this kind of work, but it’s not the best fit for the dog, whether we find that out through class or at the evaluation,” Basciano said. “It’s important to help the handler understand that though their dog may not be a good fit for therapy work, they still have an amazing dog, one who has a different sort of niche. Some dogs do better in more active pursuits like canine sports and some do best when they can be in their home environment, providing comfort and love to their own family.”
Regardless of the outcome, Basciano said the experience is universally rewarding.
“I have had the pleasure of seeing many dogs who started out homeless, some with issues,” she said. “Their person adopted them, giving them a second chance, and when they can turn that dog into a therapy dog, it is such a wonderful accomplishment, almost the dog’s way of giving back for getting that second chance.”
For more information or to sign your dog up for a future training, visit sunshinefriends.org or find them on Facebook.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.