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Is Capitol Hill going to the dogs?

The vote is still out, but on the first day of the public impeachment hearings in November, 15 certified therapy dogs and their handlers went to work in Washington D.C. Among them were two Samoyeds, 12-year-old Zamboni, and 8-year-old Spumoni, and Mac, a 4-year-old Boerboel.

Unlike lobbyists who visit the nation’s lawmakers to promote their corporate agendas, these calming canines came solely to provide comfort, stress relief, and cuddles.

Twice a year, Pet Partners and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) send the teams to Washington to provide stress relief and ease anxiety among lawmakers. Pet Partners registers therapy dogs for animal-assisted interventions, and PIJAC is an advocacy group for responsible pet care. This time around, visiting day serendipitously ended up falling on an especially anxiety-inducing day for many in the capitol.

“It takes four to six months to book our appointment here, so this visit happened to land on the same day as the opening hearing,” says PIJAC President and CEO Mike Bober.

Therapy Dogs in D.C.

More than 100 staffers and visitors dropped into the “Meet the Pets” event in the Rayburn and Hart office buildings. There, they learned first-hand about the human-animal bond and what makes therapy dogs so special.

Photo courtesy of Pet Partners

During the four-hour stint, members of Congress from both parties came by to give the dogs belly rubs and receive lots of love. Visitors included Rep. Greg Gianforte (MT), Rep. Kendra Horn (OK), Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL), Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA), and Rep. Peter Defazio (OR).

“The responses to the dogs are always positive,” says Bober. “The staffers walk into the room and their faces show the stress they must be feeling. But the moment they see a dog, they light up.”

Other therapy dogs on Capitol Hill that day included Patti the Golden Retriever, Sampson the German Shepherd Dog, Bear and Emma the Shih Tzus, Hart the Labrador Retriever, Lola the Chihuahua, and mixed breeds Blue, Cedric, and Lucy Lu.

Bipartisan Breeds

For Bober, bringing the therapy teams to visit D.C. is one of his favorite things to do on the Hill.

“It doesn’t matter if a legislator is wearing a $1,000 outfit, they’ll get right down on the floor to pet and snuggle with a therapy dog,” says Bober.

Despite their penchant for shedding, the pair of 50-pound Samoyeds, members of the Working Group, never fail to draw this well-dressed Washington crowd up close for cuddles.

“We expect children to be excited to see the therapy dogs, but it’s amazing how adults act the same way,” says Zamboni and Spumoni’s owner, Lisa Marino. “The sessions bring people back to their inner child in so many ways. The joy they feel is pure and innocent.”

Although it looked like all Zamboni and Spumoni had to do was show off their characteristic “Sammy smiles”, wag their furry tails, and give gobs of affection, their owners, Lisa Marino and her husband, Todd, spent time in advance prepping the therapeutic healers.

“A skilled handler makes the visit look like the dog is doing all the work, but the owner guides the interaction so everyone enjoys the process,” says Pet Partners Chief Mission Officer Mary Margaret Callahan. “We don’t want a dog knocking anyone over, and the dog should enjoy greeting people.”

A Calming Canine Presence

Lisa Marino first joined Pet Partners in 1998. These days, she takes her fluffy white Samoyeds to interact with middle school children several times a week. This most recent Capitol Hill visit for Marino and her 50-pound, snow-white therapy dogs marked a special anniversary for Zamboni.

“Zamboni is two years’ post-op for her bladder cancer surgery,” says Marino. “She took time off from her therapy work, but returned without missing a beat.”

According to Marino, therapy dog visits help to give everyone an emotional reset. This crucial component of the work she does with her dogs was on full display in a fraught environment like Capitol Hill, where emotions are constantly running high.

“It’s like rebooting their mental computer,” she says.”So they can go back to work and tackle difficult issues with fresh thinking.”

While some think usual suspects like Golden Retrievers are among few breeds capable of performing therapy work, Jennifer Alexander and her dog Mac suggest otherwise. Despite the 120-pound Boerboel’s imposing, Mastiff-type stature, Mac has proven to be the perfect Washington ambassador. He has even developed his own devoted following of fans.

“The public gravitates to Mac because he’s so big,” says Alexander. “He interacted with at least 75 people at the Senate Office Building. He’s like a gentle giant,” says Alexander. “Someone said they wish we would come every day.”
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