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by Alicia Harantshuk, Breigh Godleski, and Providenza Loera Rocco
A version of this article originally appeared in Impakter Magazine on 9/11/17
If you are a dog parent, you know firsthand the benefits that our furry friends can have — they welcome us when we come home, they snuggle with us on the sofa, they guard us from the mailman, and they always bring a smile to our faces. There is countless anecdotal and research-based evidence of the enormous positive power that dogs can have. But dogs can also have JOBS! In addition to being police K9s, military dogs, and seeing-eye dogs, our four-legged buds can provide therapeutic interactions. Dogs are assisting in healing after an illness, providing reassurance to an older adult with dementia, and providing security to a returning soldier with PTSD — just to name a few benefits!
Mae Belle and Vegas doing what they do best! Helping others!
There are two main types of pet therapy, Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAA is defined as opportunities for motivational, educational and/or recreational benefits in enhancing quality of life. AAT is defined as goal-directed intervention, delivered by an appropriately credentialed health or human service professional in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical healthcare treatment process. Published studies repeatedly highlight the benefits of pet therapy: lower blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, release of calming endorphins (oxytocin), relaxation, lower anxiety levels, higher spirits, and lower depression.
Several studies have shown that therapy dogs help to reduce pain levels and anxiety in pediatric populations. Therapy dogs have also been found to increase patient’s emotional health and their quality of life, despite the continued decline in their health. For example, a 2005 study of heart failure patients showed that exposure to therapy dogs decreased the patient’s self-reported anxiety levels, decreased their stress hormone (epinephrine) levels, decreased their PCWP, decreased systolic pulmonary artery pressure, as well as decreased heart rates versus the volunteer-only and the control groups.
Another study using therapy dog intervention in patients with dementia showed a significant drop in agitated behaviors from the beginning of the therapy to its conclusion. It also showed a significant increase in the social interaction of the patients after the study ended.
A study looking at children with autism and the effects of therapy dogs on their social interactions showed significant improvement in the emotional connection of the child and the dog as well as the child and the family members. Pet therapy visits significantly reduced loneliness of elderly patients in long-term care facilities, as shown in other studies.
Alicia Harantschuk, president of Comfort Caring Canines Therapy Dogs, Inc., does not need to read the studies about pet therapy benefits to know how much a dog can change and better someone’s life. She knows firsthand–because she and her furry friends practice pet therapy daily.
Alicia reflects: During the last seven years, I have either been researching or actively involved with pet therapy. I have taken part in over 400 pet visits with children, adults, and seniors with varying medical or emotional issues. During my involvement, I have seen breed diversity, program acceptance and the understanding pet therapy benefits evolve. At one time, it was a common perception that only Labradors and Golden Retrievers were suitable therapy dogs. Today we evaluate the individual not the breed. Now dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes are showing the benefits a loving touch and a playful exchange can have.
Therapy dogs are widely used in pediatric settings including schools, hospitals, dentist offices, reading programs, and rehabilitation settings. For seniors, it is commonplace for therapy dogs to be regulars at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Hospice patients also benefit from time spent with a therapy dog enjoying the soft, soothing touch of their fur. Rehabilitation centers find therapy dogs can be effective patient motivators. The list goes on and on.
The science shows us that good things are happening within our bodies that aid in physical healing and boost emotional well-being as a result of a AAA or AAT interactions. To ensure a successful visit, handler and canine should be well-trained and certified and there should be ongoing communication between the facility and the handler. Being prepared and informed is the first step in keeping interactions safe and successful. Interactions should only happen if the dog is healthy, well trained, in the right state of mind, and if the individual is receptive (never assume someone wants a visit). If your dog is afraid of thunderstorms, don’t attempt visits in the middle of one thinking they will just work through it!
Alicia states, I have three therapy dogs who are actively making visits. Mae Belle is a 7-year-old rescued Treeing Walker Coonhound. Her physical scars show her beginnings were painful. Obedience did not come easy to Mae Belle. Getting her to understand the “sit” command took nearly two weeks. It turned out to be a lesson in patience for me. She caught on and now Mae Belle is a regular on the visiting circuit, enjoying “sofa time” with a variety of patients.
Vegas takes a meeting with VNA management to discuss the therapy dog program (Photo courtesy of VNA Hospice)
Photo courtesy of VNA Hospice
Sweet Dillion loves to hide in un-traditional locations! Like the dryer!
Dillion is only two years old and still has a lot of energy, but he remains calm and caring with this little boy, who was attacked by a dog and is receiving pet therapy to overcome his fears. Dillion knows just how to act!
Vegas is our showgirl, a 5-year-old is a rescued Pitbull Mix who loves people more than anything! She has learned more than 70 tricks and entertains everyone she meets. After receiving an “official” badge, she has been known to call meetings with management to discuss pet therapy programs.
Finally, there is Dillon, a 2-year-old Mini Dachshund, who is 50% refined gentlemen and 50% clown. While on the job he is focused and obedient, but at home he can be found hiding in the washing machine, trying to eat any unsecured paper product, and trying to get on top of any high surface, even if it means moving a chair to make it happen.
My dogs have shown me positivity can come from any situation, even my father’s passing, which was the catalyst to finding my life’s passion in pet therapy. My world has been forever changed, enriched, and meaningful because of my efforts and commitment to pet therapy.
ALICIA’S STORIES FROM THE FIELD:
Trust Comes with a Wet Nose:
One day, I received a request to help a child who was afraid of dogs after being attacked. We started slowly with the young boy walking by the dog as he entered and exited the building. Once there was a trust between the boy and the dog, I broke out my secret weapon, a piano-playing Dachshund, Dillon. It was the first time I saw the little boy smile, and in that moment I was reminded again of the importance of the work we do with our dogs and the benefits it can bring to others. Today, the little boy is getting comfortable dressing Dillon in superhero costumes, reading him a story, assisting with training exercises, and learning about canine care. We still have work to do, but the coordination and dedication of therapist, parents and volunteer are making it a success.
A Friend Until the End:End-of-life situations are sad and stressful for everyone. Families still want to make every effort to find comfort for their loved one. Refusing basic hygiene, socialization, and food in the nursing home setting, this patient’s family sought creative approaches to get their loved one smiling. We immediately knew Vegas, our most charismatic dog, was perfect for this mission. Even though Vegas knows over 70 tricks, she didn’t need to use one to get a smile from this woman’s face. Vegas and this woman transcended boundaries and immediately connected. Vegas even seemed to understand the Ukrainian language the woman was speaking! Vegas read this woman, and knew just how to bring joy.
One day, this ferociously-friendly pup took on an uncharacteristically more demure attitude with her older friend. It was a behavior we had never seen from Vegas before. No longer was there a desire to be touched or close, she only shifted between pressing her nose to the side of the patient’s bed and sitting next to the patient’s son. Within the hour, the patient passed away, and Vegas never approached her again. Instead, Vegas comforted every person in the room. I am convinced she knew what was happening. Vegas loves people more than anything, and that day she shared a love like no other.
A Ruff Road to Recovery:A fractured arm, leg, and pelvis, infection, and depression left this patient bedridden. It was the love of a Pitbull that would jumpstart her recovery! With the encouragement of several warm and wet faces of love, this patient was able to continue her recovery, practicing physical therapy on a rowing machine, and ultimately healing. She was motivated throughout by her friends and it was reported that she experienced less pain during rehabilitation sessions when the dogs were there to “help” her.
Interested in becoming a volunteer with Comfort Caring Canines? Check out their website: http://comfortcaringcanines.org/wpp/
Alicia Harantshuck has four certified therapy dogs who have collectively completed more than 400 visits. She is the current President for Comfort Caring Canines Therapy Dogs, Inc. and a member of their evaluation team responsible for certifying prospective teams. In addition, Alicia took over the therapy dog and Canine Good Citizen training program for Philly Unleashed. She has been a guest speaker at a number of schools and has been acknowledged for her efforts in local papers and television. Alicia is always willing to step up and help individuals and other organizations get involved believing “doing good in the world is not a competition or an individual sport.”
Providenza Loera Rocco is an Assistant Professor of Bioethics in the Center for Bioethics, Urban Health, and Policy, at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University where she also serves as the Assistant Director of the MA Urban Bioethics Program. She specializes in urban bioethics and legal and ethical issues in end-of-life care. Enza earned her master’s in Social Work and her master’s in Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania, and she earned her law degree from Temple University Beasley School of Law. Enza also teaches at Simmons School of Social Work where she teaches courses in social policy, and at Drexel University where she teaches courses in bioethics. Additionally, she serves on the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Foundation Board of Directors.
Breigh Godleski is a second-year student in the Physician Assistant Program at Temple University. Currently Breigh is completing her clinical rotations, starting with Pediatrics. Breigh believes in addressing healing from every aspect, so she has a huge interest in therapy animals — so much so that she is doing her capstone project on them!
Clapping shows how much you appreciated Urban Bioethics @ Temple’s story.
Pet therapy adds joy to patients and their families!
Alicia Harantschuk, president of Comfort Caring Canines, guest
lectured to our “Dying in the 21st Century” class, a solutions-based
approach to care for aging, terminally-ill, and differently-abled
people. Alicia was joined by two of her pet therapy pups, Vegas and
Maybelle. Studies repeatedly show the benefits of pet therapy—and we saw the
benefits firsthand in class! Thinking outside of the box to manage
pain, decrease isolation, and help with feelings of sadness and loss,
pet therapy offers much to patients and families.
Our class learned about pet therapy and how to integrate it into the
therapy and hospital settings. We also enjoyed watching Vegas perform tricks, including playing basketball!
Comfort Caring Canines Therapy Dogs, Inc. is made up of a dedicated
group of volunteers who share the love of their canine companions—
trained and tested Therapy Dogs—with others. Comfort Caring
Canines is a non-profit and offers free visits to community nursing
homes, child care centers, schools, hospitals, and senior citizen
centers in southeastern PA, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland
Therapy dogs coming to the rescue at the VNA Philadelphia Hospice.
Doggie dearth. Canine decline. Whatever you call it, the patients at the VNA Philadelphia Hospice (VNAPH) haven’t seen a cheerful pup since 2016.
Back then Stella, an intuitive, sweet Doberman mix, and Ni-Chin, a Japanese Chin, who often wore costumes and rode in a Santa sleigh during the holidays, used to go room to room in the 15-bed inpatient unit, bringing smiles to the patients and the staff.
The halls haven’t been the same since and, even with all the progressive therapies at VNAPH’s disposal, it turns out it’s impossible to replace a furry greeting.
Thankfully, the wait is almost over and yelp is on the way. Vegas, a pitbull mix, and Mae Belle, a Treeing Walker Coonhound, visited VNAPH earlier this month with Alicia and Gene Harantschuk of Comfort Caring Canines to volunteer their services.
The pups hadn’t been in the building two minutes before staff members began popping up from their desks and queueing up in the hallway outside the office of Terry Scott, the Manager of the Volunteer program at VNAPH.
Terry laughed when she heard about the groupies outside her door – having been in dog therapy for many years, she knows the magic dogs bring to a hospice setting. “Everybody understands how great dogs are for patients but they’re crucial too for our caregivers. There’s a lot of loss in our inpatient unit and profound emotions among patients and family members. The energy can be overwhelming. When a dog arrives, our people just light up. It’s healing.”
She’s such a believer in therapy dogs that she even volunteered one of her own when she worked at Lehigh Valley Hospice in 1994. “He was one of 22 dogs that were evaluated to be in the program. Many didn’t make the cut, including mine. He would’ve made a great therapy dog, had a wonderful temperament, but he was terrified of wheelchairs. Just couldn’t get over it. That’s why I like to expose therapy dogs to our inpatient unit first to get a sense of how they react. Some of the equipment might spook them.”
Fortunately, Vegas and Mae Belle are pros. Vegas, with over 250 visits under his collar, is the more experienced of the two (Mae Belle’s had “only” 75 visits) but Mae Belle is more serene. “She’s very gentle” says Alicia, “she’ll hop right up on a couch next to a patient and lie there all day.” “Almost like a greyhound,” adds Gene.
Both dogs are veterans of everything from nursing homes to college campuses (“de-stressing” sessions for test weary students), to kids’ reading classes (turns out dogs love to hear people’s voices and aren’t sticklers for grammar, which helps kids read aloud with confidence).
The variety of experience is a key part of therapy dog training for Alicia and Gene. “All our dogs get trained at their own pace, using different pieces of equipment and in different situations. Regardless of the setting, we don’t want to stress them out. It’s about them having fun – so all of our reinforcement is positive. We never want to force anything.”
Which is exactly the way Terry prefers it – “we look at the dog’s demeanor and the way they interact with the handler. When I was at Grand View Hospital, I had to reject one volunteer because the relationship with the dog was a bad one. She wasn’t positive and the dog wasn’t under control. I just couldn’t believe he was a therapy dog.”
As she spoke, Vegas wagged contentedly under Gene’s chair as nurses gathered near the door. “You can never have too many good therapy dogs,” she said. “There’s always someone in need.”
Paws for the Cause
Interested in therapy dog training? If you’d like to enroll your promising pup, contact Alicia at Comfort Caring Canines (email@example.com) or Leigh Siegfried at Opportunity Barks (888-672-2757 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you already have a therapy dog, consider becoming a volunteer at the VNAPH. Shifts are flexible and the gratitude from patients and caregivers runs deep. Contact Terry Scott at 215-581-2360 or tscott (at) vnaphilly.org for enrollment info.
Alicia, Gene, and the team have completed the training course and will be visiting the inpatient unit at VNAPH in a few weeks. BONUS, they’ve found another volunteer to join Vegas and Mae Belle. Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s Dillon.
Alicia gives us some details about Dillon —
“Dillon was part of CCC’s first evaluation at Opportunity Barks, passing on 1/28/17. While he has only just passed and completed a dozen official visits, he has been making unofficial visits (facility approved) since he was eight months hold, His first call to action was with a patient we had been visiting for years. She was in the final stages of life and we needed a small dog for the job. He spent time with her during her final three days. People gathered to see him sitting next to her for up to 30 minutes with very little movement. During one visit, she managed to pull her arm from under the blanket and cradle him. If ever a dog was meant to do this, it is Dillon.”
Comfort Caring Canines, Therapy Dogs, Inc.
On Saturday, November 5, 2016, Comfort Caring Canines (CCC) held their awards luncheon to honor 10, 15 and 20 year members and to celebrate their many accomplishments during 2016. The event included approximately 45 attendees. In addition, 16 of the organization’s certified therapy dogs were also in attendance.
CCC arranged to have member, Barbara Harding, DVM, present on canine first aid and CRP. She is one of the veterinarians at Quakertown Vet Clinic with approximately 30 years of experience. Barbara shared a thorough presentation while fostering an interactive session where members could ask questions gaining valuable knowledge on how to handle emergency type situations. Attendees also learned ways to better understand their dogs and identify warning signs early on.
Due to increased public awareness about the benefits of pet therapy, CCC has seen a significant increase in their membership and the number of visit requests from hospitals, nursing homes and schools. CCC has taken a thoughtful approach to dealing with the increased demands without jeopardizing the quality of their handler teams. The organization began offering online orientations, increased certification test offerings and partnered with K9Jym, Deb Lipartito and Nicole Larocco-Skeehan of Philly Unleashed to offer comprehensive therapy dog prep classes to help prepare handlers for what they will experience on visits.
Click here to see additional pictures of the event. If you have questions about therapy dogs visits or would like to have your dog certified, please contact us at email@example.com.
Photos: (left) Some of the CCC members and their certified dogs. (Right) Great Danes Trixie (black and white) and Tank (blue) have an impromptu training session from a future trainer. Click here for additional Pictures.
Comfort Caring Canines (CCC) has long wanted to offer evaluations in Philadelphia. On May 14, 2016 the wait was over as 13 individuals came out to test with their dogs. CCC is proud to report that all passed and are now therapy dog teams with the organization.
A very special thank you to Philly Pet Hotel for allowing us to use their wonderful facility. Click here to learn more about Philly Pet Hotel.
CCC was on NBC 10 Philadelphia, in a story featuring rescue dogs that have become therapy dogs! Thank you for our members that came out to be interviewed and Rockledge Vet for allowing use of the facility
Readers may recall my rescue Rottweiler, Annabelle, who was featured a few years ago in a TTRM article, “Street Dog to Obedience Dog to Therapy Dog” by Diane Richardson. Annabelle came to me as a rescue in October of 2006 at approximately one year old. We spent the next several months getting to know each other, and allowing her to get to know my male Rottweiler, Toby. After that, I enrolled her in a beginner’s obedience class at Suburban Dog Training Club, where I had been a member for several years and was training Toby for obedience competition. After completing beginners, we tested for and passed the Canine Good Citizen evaluation, a requirement for training in competition obedience classes. We then began training at a novice level for AKC obedience competition. During this period, I had quite a few medical problems with Toby, who ended up losing his sight (TTRM featured Toby in an article several years ago). Once Toby lost his sight, of course, I was unable to show him in AKC obedience. During the months that followed, I noticed how sad Toby was that he was not accompanying me to class or going out to train any more. It became quite apparent to me that he needed a “job.”
I thought deeply about what a blind Rottweiler could do, and concluded that perhaps being a therapy dog would suit him. I researched local therapy dog groups and ended up selecting Comfort Caring Canines, Inc. I knew a young lady on the BOD who provided me with information on what the evaluations encompassed. I was hesitant to put a blind dog through the evaluations, so I decided to enroll Annabelle for the obedience and temperament evaluations, so I could see exactly what they were like. Yes, I used Annabelle as a “guinea pig” so to speak. Annabelle passed both evaluations in March of 2008 and I felt confident that Toby would be able to withstand and pass the evaluations. So, in June 2008 I did the evaluations with Toby, which he passed with flying colors to the delight and tears of the testers and onlookers. Thus, while looking for a job for my blind Rottweiler to do, a whole new world of Therapy Work opened up to me!
Toby has since crossed the Rainbow Bridge, having put in countless hours of therapy visits in the short time he was certified. Annabelle and I have been on our own since April of 2009. I enjoyed the therapy work that I began with Toby so much that I continued with Annabelle. We alternated obedience training and competition with therapy visits. I have to admit that communicating to her the difference between when she MAY and MAY NOT interact with people was a bit of a challenge. Her natural desire is to meet and greet every single person she sees. Eventually she came to understand when she was “obedience working” and when she was “therapy dog working.” What a remarkably intelligent and intuitive breed the Rottweiler is!
Over the past five years, Annabelle has earned her AKC Companion Dog, Companion Dog Excellent, and Utility Dog titles. This was my very first Utility Dog title, and one of the highlights of my life! She’s also earned AKC Rally Novice, Rally Advanced and Rally Excellent titles. Since Annabelle is now nine years old, I have opted not to pursue a UDX title. I would like to earn a Versatility title on her, if she is able to perform the exercises. I’ve recently noticed her eyesight deteriorating a bit more (she has retinal deterioration that was most likely incurred in utero or as a very young puppy) and am not confident that she can accurately see my signals or follow the dumbbell being thrown. Once springtime comes and we resume training, I’ll be able to make an accurate assessment of her ability.
I believe it was in 2010 that the AKC established the Therapy Dog Titles, officially recognizing therapy dogs and awarding them titles based on their service. I immediately applied for and was awarded the Therapy Dog (THD) title for Annabelle. Most importantly, Annabelle just recently earned the AKC Therapy Dog Excellent Title (THDX), given to therapy dogs who have accomplished 200 visits. Since our visits can extend from an hour to two or two and a half hours each, this is a considerable accomplishment! The title certificate came from the AKC with a beautiful embroidered emblem and a magnificent medallion on a red, white and blue ribbon (see photo of Annabelle wearing her medallion).
I am a member of Colonial Rottweiler Club, which offers achievement awards based on the accomplishments of your Rottweiler. Points are awarded for all the various competition venues: obedience, tracking, rally obedience, agility, therapy dog service, and so on.
Awards on the bronze, silver, and gold levels. In 2011, she was awarded the “Seger Medallion” at Colonial Rottweiler Club’s Specialty Show (see photo of Annabelle taken by show photographer). This award is given each year to the Rottweiler who has
exemplified service to mankind and enhancing the lives of others through their therapy dog service. Annabelle has quite a unique personality in terms of therapy dog service.
If we enter a large room filled with people, she will intuitively go from one person, to the next, to the next, until she has personally greeted each one. To me, it is amazing that a dog who was thrown away at one point in her life can so love people. It is also amazing that everything I have ever asked this dog to do for me, she has done with eagerness, willingness, and enthusiasm.
We have done countless hours of service in several nursing home facilities, at every level from independent, to assisted, to skilled nursing care. We’ve also attended functions for children affected with cleft palate (see photo of Annabelle and one of the children hugging her) and each year we are invited to attend the ALS Association’s Holiday Party for their patients (see photos of the 2014 ALS Association’s Holiday Party). We’ve attended numerous pet fairs and represented Comfort Caring Canines at their booths. We served for several years as visitors at a psychiatric facility as well.
Currently, we visit Saint Joseph Villa on a regular basis. The Villa is a large facility owned and operated by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Flourtown, Pennsylvania. We have been visiting there for years (see photo of Annabelle and one of the Villa residents). It is an eight-story facility, with four wings on each floor. We can only visit one floor each time we go. The effect that Annabelle has on patients is remarkable.
I’ve seen a smile on a person’s face while petting her, and found out later that the person has had no prior response at all, not a smile or even the attempt to reach their
hand out. It’s incredible that such a simple thing as stroking a dog’s head or petting their back can mean so much to someone. Some of the people we visit have told us they love us. Many have thanked us over and over again for coming. A few years ago, I received a call on my cell phone from the Villa, informing me that one of the women we visit was dying. I was asked if I would bring Annabelle to visit her, and of course, we went that evening. This is one time that I did allow my dog to put her paws up on the patient’s bed, since she was unable to sit up or move. We gently placed her hand on Annabelle’s head, and helped her stroke her fur, and saw a beautiful, magnificent smile come across the woman’s face. This is one of the most touching, endearing moments I’ve ever experienced. This is what makes therapy dog service so worthwhile the knowledge that you have made a difference in someone’s life!
If you’ve ever considered doing therapy service with your dog, I encourage you to give it a try. A well-structured therapy dog organization has rigid testing established that will determine if your dog has both the obedience skills and the temperament required to enter therapy dog service. Last, but certainly not least ,in our accomplishments, I submitted a beautiful action photo of Annabelle coming over a high jump with a dumbbell in the TTRM 2015 calendar contest (visit TTRM forum). I am thrilled to announce that the photograph was among the twelve that had the highest number of votes, and her photograph is featured on the November 2015 page of the calendar. This is quite thrilling, as many of the photos submitted to this contest were absolutely magnificent. I’m so proud to also have a pin-up girl!
In closing, I sincerely thank TTRM for the privilege and honor of featuring my rescue girl Annabelle. I thank Annabelle as well, for giving me more joy and teaching me more than I ever thought possible!
Caring canines comfort local residents most in need
Posted on February 13, 2015
Bob Dettery, president of Comfort Caring Canines (CCC), an all-volunteer local organization that’s been incorporated since the early 1990s, is seen with his therapy dog, Samantha, a 9-year old miniature Australian Shepherd who “gives the children an incentive to practice without fear of some type of failure.”j
by Karen Plourde
Alicia and Gene Harantschuk have witnessed the difference a dog can make in the life of someone with special needs. Alicia’s dad, James Jeffries, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for years, but she believes having a Rottweiler and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to care for gave him something to focus on other than his illness.
“My dad, from the back door to the steps, if he was going to get something, he couldn’t remember,” she said, “but he would look at his clock and say, ‘We gotta feed Topper’(the King Charles).”
After Jeffries died in 2011, Alicia and Gene, residents of Wyndmoor, wanted to do something constructive to honor his memory. More than three years, two dogs and a year of obedience training and testing later, they’re regular pet visitors with Comfort Caring Canines (CCC), an all-volunteer local organization that’s been incorporated since the early 1990s.
CCC brings dogs to residents of assisted living facilities, children at day care centers and other places where their presence can help others, according to Bob Dettery, a resident of Hatfield and president of the group. Members have brought their dogs to college campuses during finals week to help de-stress the students and to elementary schools to work with children who are having reading difficulties.
“They [the children] read their stories or books to the dogs, and the dogs are non-judgmental,” said Dettery, 61,who brings his nine-year old miniature Australian Shepherd, Samantha, along on visits. “It gives the children an incentive to practice without fear of some type of failure.”
The Harantschuks’ journey to become pet visitors had to start from square one; they didn’t have a dog. Alicia searched Pet Finder for three months, then saw a photo of Olivia, a Dachshund, online. and drove to Upstate New York to meet her. “They didn’t even have her out of the kennel yet, and I went, ‘Yeah, I’ll take her, and if the other one’s a girl, I’ll take that one,’” she recalled.
Alas, the other Dachshund was a male. Also, because the breed tends to be stubborn and not used to working with their owners, Alicia, 43, had doubts as to whether Olivia would make a good therapy dog. They decided to keep Olivia but then went to Main Line Animal Rescue in Phoenixville to look for an older Labrador as their second dog.
“Gene kept saying, ‘Did you see that Pit Bull puppy in the front room?’ … But I’m like, we have these older dogs, and they need a home, and [they] kind of go with what we’d like to do,” she said. “And he goes, ‘I don’t know, that Pit Bull puppy is calling my name.’ So we spent two days with the rescue, and we got the two of them together, and we came home with a Pit Bull puppy. And they have both turned out to be amazing.”
Following a year’s worth of training, Vegas (the two-year old Pit Bull mix) and Olivia (the almost three-year-old Dachshund), were tested on their temperament and obedience by CCC. Dettery said the group tries to do these evaluations four times a year; the fee is $35.
“…They’re gonna pull ears, pull their tail, open up their mouth, put their hand in their mouths…they’re gonna use a walker, someone’s gonna go up to them with a wheelchair…” Alicia said.
Following a year’s worth of training, Vegas, a two-year old Pit Bull mix, and Olivia, an almost three-year-old Dachshund, both belonging to Alicia and Gene Harantschuk of Wyndmoor, were certified as therapy dogs by CCC. Once CCC clears a dog for the program, its owners will get a list of facilities that have requested visits by the dogs. (Photo by Frankie Plourde)
For the obedience portion, dogs have to heel on a leash and do a 90-second “sit/stay” command or a 90-second “down/stay.” Once CCC clears a dog for the program, its owners will get a list of facilities that have requested visits. There are about 60 active members in CCC right now, and Dettery said he gets at least one new request a week from various facilities or programs.
The Harantschuks decided early on to go beyond the typical pet visit. “We wanted to make connections with people,” Alicia said. “We just kind of wanted to take them away from what’s going on.” So they decided to teach their dogs to perform in front of a group. Vegas now knows about 75 commands, including tricks and obedience, and Olivia can do 25-30 commands. Their collection of maneuvers includes everything from Vegas playing basketball to Olivia weaving in and out of a walker to Olivia jumping through a hoop or over Vegas. The dogs and Gene and Alicia go to between two and four facilities per month; they were recently approved to start making visits at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Alicia, who works in the hedge fund department at Morgan Stanley during the week, has found the visits help her stay connected to her dad. “I think it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life,” she said. “You meet everybody, from nurses to activities directors to the residents, and it’s elderly and children and intellectually challenged. It’s a wide range, but yet, what we’re doing connects with everybody.” Her husband, 55, is a driver for Riders Club Cooperative.
Every now and then, a volunteer will be a witness to a breakthrough from a client or resident that happens because of their dog, according to Dettery, a semi-retired regulatory consultant to the pharmaceutical industry. “One person I had Samantha visit had not spoken for months,” he recalled. “When she started touching the dog, she started saying, ‘Nice dog, nice dog.’ The staff there was amazed because it was the first thing that she had said in a long time.”
Norm Vetter, a consulting therapist who co-coordinates a weekly activity program for intellectually challenged adults at Northwestern Human Services (NHS) in Mt. Airy, feels the visits from the Harantschuks and their dogs bring excitement and stimulation to a group whose members are often isolated.
“When they bring the dogs, I think the group experiences what we all experience with pets, which is unconditional love,” he said. “The dogs are friendly and welcoming, and they respond to people paying attention to them, and having that kind of response back is very validating for the members of the group.”
Alicia advises dog owners who want to get into pet therapy to do their homework and take it from there. “If you need a little bit of work, there are places that can help you,” she said. “You can take an obedience class…if you think your dog has the temperament to do it, do it. There’s just nothing that I’ve had that you can compare to it.”
Comfort Caring Canines conducts monthly orientation sessions for prospective members at various locations.
For more information, visit comfortcaringcanines.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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