These therapists earn pat on head

Local therapy dogs help kids, patients and seniors

NEW LEBANON — On recent Saturday morning the New Lebanon Library went to the dogs… and to the kids who wanted to read to them. Specially trained therapy dogs — a Rottweiler and an Australian shepherd — sat quietly December 17, listening as 1st and 2nd graders read stories about silly dogs and a pigeon who wants puppies.

The program at the library is called Paws-to-Read, and the dogs have gone through an extensive training in working not only with kids but with the elderly and with people of all ages in hospitals around the region.

Both are therapy dogs, trained through local programs. The Columbia Paper interviewed several owners of dogs who trained through Therapy Dogs International, Inc. (TDI). They and their owners visit libraries in Valatie and Hillsdale, schools in Chatham and East Greenbush, and the Barnwell Nursing Home, as well as VA hospitals in the region.

According to the TDI website, in 2010 about 24,000 dogs and their owners volunteered for these types of programs in all 50 states and Canada.

The dogs must go through a six-to-eight-week training course on top of regular obedience classes, said Elisabeth Grace, whose corgi, Cole, visits patients at Albany Medical Center. She and Cole trained at a program of the Columbia Greene Human Society/SPCA (GCHS). Ms. Grace is a therapist professionally but most of the other owners interviewed were not. And even Ms. Grace stressed she started training Cole as a therapy dog because she was a dog lover first not because of her profession. Other owners said they got the certification for different reasons and because there were communities with whom they wanted to work.

Antonette Perry said she took her English mastiff, Maggie, to an obedience courses at CGHS and was told the dog had the right disposition to work as a therapy dog. Chok Dee, another TDI dog, was rescued from the streets of Bangkok, Thailand, and became a therapy dog after coming stateside, said owner Laura Manchester.

Dogs must be at least a year old to be part of the program, and all the owners interviewed for this story talked about having dogs with the right personality for the work. In addition, Ms. Manchester said, “The individual dog shows you what they like,” when it comes to selecting a population they want to work with. Some dogs enjoy working with kids or the elderly or going into hospitals more than others.

Many of the dog owners shared the experience of visiting retirement homes where they were welcomed by the residents. “It kind of brings a dog back into their life,” said Ms. Manchester.

Ms. Perry echoed that observation, saying many retired people talk about the dogs they’ve had in the past.

The dogs are trained to be aware of wheelchairs and walkers, screaming children and patients, and not to eat things off the floor, especially in hospitals, Ms. Grace said.

At schools, all the owners said the kids enjoy reading to dogs. “It’s a big motivation and the kids love it,” said Ms. Perry. And all the therapy dog owners talked about how the faces of students light up when a dog arrives at their library.

Ms. Perry mentioned working in a school where a child had allergies. Maggie, who weighs 200 pounds, simply sat on a blanket when in the school and the blanket was washed afterward. Generally the owners all talked about being welcomed by organizations more than being turned away because people were afraid of, or allergic to, dogs.

At the New Lebanon Library, a shepherd named Posie listened as a very excited 1st grader read a story to her. Posie’s owner, Marje Cartwright, tells a story of a young boy reading to Posie very quietly when an adult told him to speak up.

Another child told the adult: “Posie has very, very good ears.”

“And the boy went on reading,” Ms. Cartwright said. That’s the point of having a child read to a dog, a being that won’t judge the child’s reading ability or volume.

Four or five children came to read with the dogs at the library that morning. Posie and the Rottweiler, Kodiak, stayed close to their owners and remained on their leashes the whole time. The librarian said there have been as many as dozen kids at some of the Saturday programs.

Most of the owners, all of whom are volunteers, say they find out through word of mouth about libraries or schools or retirement homes interested in a visit from a dog. Some get emails from TDI, which is based out of New Jersey. And there are other programs in the area that also provide training and support for therapy dogs.

“She sits and actually listens to me,” said Samantha Hoffman, a six year old reading with Posie at the library.

“It’s kind of fun,” said Costanza Binah Major, a seven year old who had just finished reading “Go Dog Go” to Kodiak.

For more information about TDI go to http://tdi-dog.org or call 973 252-9800. Columbia-Greene Humane Society/SPCA can be contacted at http://cghs.org or 518 828-6044.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email .

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