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Group trains therapy pets out of Cicero facility

Sunshine Friends Inc. trains therapy pets to aid those in need of comfort.

Sunshine Friends Inc. trains therapy pets to aid those in need of comfort.

— 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.

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