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Special Gifts Therapy Dogs Bring to Mankind Reflected in First AKC ThD Titleholders

(Wednesday, July 20, 2011)

-- AKC’s New ‘Therapy Dog’ Title Program Launches --

Therapy dog owners, and those who have benefitted from comforting visits with these special canines, have long known this treasured expression of the canine-human bond has a healing touch like no other. On June 27th the American Kennel Club launched its AKC Therapy Dog Title program to honor those who have unconditionally given so much. To achieve AKC’s Therapy Dog or “ThD” title a dog must be certified or registered with an AKC-recognized therapy dog organization, perform a minimum of 50 documented visits and be an AKC Dog through either AKC registration, PAL listing or AKC Canine Partners enrollment.

“We are proud to reward therapy dogs, who provide ongoing community service to help improve the wellbeing of others, with the distinction of the AKC Therapy Dog title,” said Lisa Peterson, AKC Spokesperson. “We aim to give much-deserved recognition to these hard-working therapy dogs, their dedicated owners and the therapy dog organizations for all their efforts to help mankind.”

For a full list of participating therapy dog organizations, click here.

Meet the first dogs to receive the AKC Therapy Dog “ThD” title:

“Riker,” an Australian Shepherd owned by Liz Palika from Oceanside, California with Love on a Leash

Riker made his first therapy visits to retirement homes for senior citizens shortly after his first birthday. He has since visited hospice, skilled nursing and rehabilitation patients and participated in reading programs for kids.

Riker also participates in a program for special needs kids. At one day care center for children, who are in the foster system or face severe health, emotional or behavioral issues, he visited a blind and deaf young girl. She had been at the center for days and hadn’t voluntarily moved from her chair, played with other kids or smiled during that time. The day care director placed the girl’s hand on Riker’s coat. Almost immediately, her hands began stroking him. Riker managed to sneak in a kiss on her cheek. Instead of being afraid, the girl laughed out loud, rocking in her chair. Soon, she was out on the playground and making noises, calling Riker to her!

“Riker has always been one of those dogs that was born loving all mankind,” said owner Liz Palika. “I've done therapy dog work with many dogs previously, but Riker was just born to do this. Even now, at 12 years of age, when I get out his therapy dog vest, Riker wiggles and dances like a puppy.  When I bring a dog in to visit someone and I see smiles and open arms greet us, well, life doesn't get any better than that!”

“Kayla,” a Labrador Retriever owned by Lori and Roger Morgan from Green, Ohio with Delta Society

Kayla, a therapy dog since June 30, 1998, is the third longest-serving, active dog in the Delta Society therapy animal program out of 10,804 teams. She was found as a stray dog at about one year of age, with her collar partially grown into her neck. Since 1998, Kayla has accompanied her owner Lori Morgan to the school where Lori works as a guidance counselor. Now 14, Kayla is still working visiting Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio through the Doggie Brigade program.

Kayla and Lori are trained for crisis response through the National Organization for Victims Assistance (NOVA). They were first deployed to California in 2001 to assist a community recovering from the aftermath of a gunman who killed three people and wounded others. At one point during a large community meeting, they wandered around and Kayla approached a few people. Later, a person asked Lori if she had known that Kayla approached the mom of one of the victims as well as two other survivors. Lori had no idea, she had just followed Kayla’s lead!

Kayla and Lori also assisted in the aftermath of September 11th. The pair worked in the New Jersey Family Assistance Center counseling victims and family members and also visited Ground Zero. While petting Kayla, one man shared how he had to sort through the rubble and place human remains in evidence bags. At the end of the conversation, he did not really realize he was being “debriefed” by a crisis counselor - he just saw a lady with a dog.

“We love therapy work because it makes a difference in people's lives. It follows a motto that I have hanging in my home ‘we can do no great things, only small things with great love’ (Mother Teresa).” said Lori. “To me, therapy dogs encompass that motto. They do so many small things with such great love and devotion.”

"Murdock," a Staffordshire Bull Terrier owned by Teri Meadows of Golden, Colorado with Therapy Dogs Inc.

Murdock and Teri have made more than 1,000 visits representing Therapy Dogs, Inc. The pair makes regular weekly visits, special holiday visits and personal request visits to places like nursing homes, libraries, hospice care centers, VA hospitals, youth detention centers, Good Samaritan homes, schools and day care centers. Patients with speech problems lovingly begin to pet him, looking at him and then to Teri with smiling eyes. After a few minutes they often try to speak to him. Over time, several patients form words. Children love to sit and read to him; he will look at their books as if listening and reading with them.

His visits to nursing homes became times of laughter and joy with residents. People’s sorrows seem to fade away as they remember the dogs they have had during their lifetime. Today because of Murdock’s age, more than 13-years-old, visits to nursing homes has even more meaning and closeness to the residents, according to Teri.

As a Staffordshire Bull Terrier Murdock sometimes has to face unfair breed stereotypes, but his friendliness and good manners win everyone over. He has been an outstanding ambassador for the breed. Murdock’s kind, loving and gentle temperament, along with his ability to sense what people need, make him a great therapy dog.

“The happiness that my dog’s visit can bring to someone, even if for only a short period of time, gives me great satisfaction,” she said. “They can briefly forget their problems, pain or sadness. The reward of enriching the lives of others through therapy is priceless; the feeling is indescribable.”

“Lucy,” a Golden Retriever owned by Debbie Hanowell from Fayetteville, NC with Therapy Dogs International (TDI)

Since June 2005, Lucy and Debbie have averaged 2-3 visits per week and have logged well over 1,000 therapy visits. Most of the team’s visits take place at Fort Bragg as part of the Womack Medical Center’s Wounded Warrior Program. The pair visits wounded soldiers and ill family members and spends time in clinic waiting rooms cheering up children. Lucy and Debbie also visit Moon Hall, a resident facility of returning soldiers and work closely with the Red Cross unit at Womack Medical Center.

One of the team’s most memorable visits was with a toddler who wore a body cast from the armpits down, with only his toes peeking out. Once Lucy began licking the boy’s toes, the change in the toddler and his family was immediate – he started giggling and laughing, showing more emotion than he had in days. The two were honored to be invited to represent the Military Therapy Dog program at the American Red Cross 125th Anniversary in Washington DC in 2006. Lucy is also a Tail Waggin’ Tutor, encouraging children to learn to read and have fun!

“Therapy visits allow us to spend a moment with a wounded warrior, an elderly Veteran, a lonely spouse, a frightened child, or a hard-working hospital staff member,” said owner Debbie Hanowell. “Simply put, therapy visits give Lucy and me the opportunity to give back to those who gave so much.”

“Koko,” an All-American Dog enrolled in the AKC Canine Partners program, owned by Steven Herz from Scotch Plains, NJ with St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center Paws for People

Last year, Koko and her owner Steven Herz - one of the busiest teams with St. Hubert’s Paws for People - logged more than 100 visits at numerous facilities, including schools, hospitals, libraries and assisted living facilities.

In her six years as a therapy dog, Koko’s teddy bear qualities have touched thousands of lives. Koko and Steven “have been blessed” to see a young man persuaded to get up out of his wheelchair to "walk" Koko down the corridor of a major children's rehab hospital, to tour a large VA hospital and visit with soldiers young and old, to be among the first to greet troops returning from Iraq, to help improve the reading of inner city second graders in Newark, New Jersey, to achieve breakthroughs with severely autistic kids, and to "give some love" to medical staff, patients, police and EMTs in a busy hospital emergency department on a Sunday afternoon.

According to Steven, “People are amazed to find out that Koko is my first dog. While growing up, my mom never let me have a dog, so it would have been enough to spend these years just enjoying Koko, but to be able to work together in the many diverse places that we do as part of St. Hubert's Paws for People takes the experience of "dog owner/handler" to an entirely different level. I store away each and every "thank you," "God bless you," and the highest payment of all, "You made my day."

“Norman,” a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel owned by Susan Drastal of West Caldwell, New Jersey with The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc.

Norman, a certified therapy dog since 1996, has made more than 600 therapy visits and still works today at the age of 13.

In 2001, Norman comforted families of the World Trade Center following 9/11 at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ. Some families had small children and they would play with the dogs, while their parent discussed very serious issues with one of the rescue organization's staff.  The dogs formed a line outside for all the family members to pet before they got on a bus that took them to the ferry that would take them into Manhattan.  They were there when the family members received their loved ones’ ashes from Ground Zero. 

“Norman is definitely a natural when it comes to pet therapy,” said owner Susan Drastal. “He seems to know which patients need a visit and will spend more time with certain people. Sometimes, patients are fearful of upcoming procedures, therapy, etc. and they will talk to Norman as if he knows what they are saying.  He is small enough that I can put him in the bed or the lap of the person and he presses up against the patient.  Sometimes, when we work with children, I have Norman do tricks to entertain them.  Norman knows hand signals as well as verbal and the kids always want to make him do a trick.  So, I let them say the command, but I am behind the child, giving a hand signal, and when Norman performs the trick, this delights the child.”

For more information visit www.akc.org/akctherapydog, email akctherapydog@akc.org or call 919-816-3900.