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.

— 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.

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