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Paws with a Purpose: Therapy Dogs Train For Success

Therapy dogs are always on the run. From schools, to hospitals, to courtrooms, to senior centers, these dogs do it all with a shake of their tails. They are patient, loving and well-trained pets whose mission is to help people struggling with illness, depression, anxiety or loneliness.
To receive their therapy dog certification, dogs have to complete and pass training classes and tests. Therapy Dogs United is a non-profit organization that works to train therapy dogs and take them out into the public to help people.
According to their website,, Therapy Dogs United aims to inspire “physical and emotional healing through the use of interactive animal-assisted therapy and humane education.”
Owners take their therapy dogs to medical, social and educational facilities, including schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters and many more places.
Ann Baker, a guidance counselor at McDowell Intermediate High School, owns a therapy dog named Sophie. “Therapy dogs have a very specific purpose. They’re there to help with anxiety and stress,” Baker said.
Sophie, a Great Pyrenees, visits schools and lets kids read to her to help them become more confident readers.
However, Sophie has had to take a break from her therapy work due to a torn ACL, requiring her to wear a brace. Baker sees this as an opportunity to help a whole new group of people. She plans to have Sophie visit the Shriners Hospitals for Children — Erie to show kids that “sometimes things happen, and it’s okay.”
Therapy dogs possess several traits that make them the perfect companion for people in need. “Sophie just has this personality that we really recognize,” Baker said. “She’s completely okay with people coming up to her; she’s completely okay with other dogs.” Usually, Therapy Dogs United looks for dogs that are friendly, accepting, calm and obedient.
Therapy Dogs United trains dogs for free, but owners must pay a $15 fee in order to take the certification test.
Dana James, a sixth grade Millcreek science teacher, owns an 11-year-old therapy dog named Shelby. Shelby is an Australian Shepard-Border Collie mix who visits James S. Wilson Middle School every Wednesday activity period to interact with kids. James said that Shelby was required to take multiple tests in order to become a certified therapy dog.
James said the tests Shelby took included sit and stay commands, behavior testing, tolerance testing, and ignoring distractions, such as wheelchairs, kids or food.
Aspiring therapy dogs are advised to complete several training courses in preparation for the certification test.
According to Baker, working with and training a therapy dog is “a huge responsibility.” She said that there are many different levels of training for dogs to work through to prepare for their certification tests.
Dogs can receive basic obedience training at Erie Canine Academy. They provide small six-week classes trained by Julie Stack, who has 20 years of dog-training experience.
Some of their classes include Basic Obedience 1 through 3 as well as Canine Good Citizen. These classes help dogs learn basic behavior skills, leadership, and emergency commands.
Erie Canine Academy also partners with Therapy Dogs United to provide a therapy dog training course. Once a dog completes some of these training classes, they are eligible to take the two certification tests.
The canine candidate must first pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, and then they must take the TDU Therapy Dog Evaluation.
These tests ensure that the dog can obey basic commands, stay focused despite distractions and remain calm in high-stress situations.
Once a dog has passed, they are officially a certified therapy dog, and their owner can take them out to help people.
“People are volunteering their time. They’re volunteering their dog’s time,” Baker said. However, people don’t need to own a dog to work with therapy dogs. They can earn approval to become a volunteer handler for owners who don’t have time, as long as they meet with the owner and dog beforehand.
In order to become a therapy dog handler, Therapy Dogs United requires that they pass a Child Abuse Background Check and a Criminal Background Check.
Not only do these visits help patients, but they also benefit the dogs. “The effect on Shelby has been so noticeable. When I say, ‘Hey Shel, we’re going to school’… She jumps up, grabs a toy and runs for the door,” James said.
James believes Shelby’s presence benefits the students, providing a calming effect and letting them forget about their school stress for a little bit.
Therapy dogs calm those in high-stress situations and continually leave people feeling more energetic after their visits.
At hospitals, the dogs usually sit next to a patient, providing comfort and enjoyment. Some benefits include reduced blood pressure, anxiety and depression.
“Sophie might not necessarily be the most amazing dog,” Baker said, “but as soon as that vest goes on, she knows she’s working.”
Therapy Dogs United also has several different groups of therapy dogs. Faculty Therapy Dogs visit senior centers and hospitals to give patients companionship, interaction, comfort and motivation to get better.
Skilled Support Therapy Dogs go to rehabilitation centers and facilities that assist behaviorally challenged kids. These dogs bring a sense of motivation, reduce stress and calm patients’ fears.
Therapy Dogs United also has Companion Dogs that visit people with depression, loneliness or disabilities to provide a calm, positive atmosphere and reduce stress.
Some therapy dogs, such as Shelby and Sophie, travel to schools to help kids learn in a calm, non-judgemental atmosphere.
Therapy Dogs United’s newest program, Courthouse Comfort Dogs, allows dogs inside courthouses with kids to calm and support them.
“Therapy dogs calm people down and create joy where there may have been none,” said James.
Last year, Baker brought Sophie to McDowell Intermediate High School in an attempt to get kids to forget about their school stress. She hopes more therapy dogs can come and visit in the future.
“There’s an instantaneous response, and you see it on their faces when they first see the dog. It just makes people really smile,” Baker said.

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