Connecticut’s First Therapy Dogs International Chapter Comes To Newtown

Therapy Dogs International Chapter 268 held its first meeting in Newtown on Tuesday, February 26, after receiving permission from Therapy Dogs International (TDI) to create a local chapter. TDI Chapter 268, currently with 41 members, is the only TDI chapter in Connecticut.

TDI is based out of Flanders, N.J. It is the oldest registry for therapy dogs in the country, and provides training, testing, certification, primary liability insurance, and registration for handlers and dogs. According to literature provided by the organization, TDI’s testing of dogs is “rigorous and includes obedience tests, as well as components that are essential for reliable therapy dog certification.” All dog health records are reviewed and updated regularly, and annual mental and physical health examinations are required for every dog. No TDI volunteers can visit any facility without an annual examination of the dog completed.

Dogs of all breeds and sizes can be certified by TDI. What the organization looks for in a dog is an “outstanding temperament. This means that the dog should be outgoing and friendly to all people: men, women, and children. The dog should be tolerant of other dogs (of both genders) and nonaggressive toward other pets.”

Prior to the events of 12/14, TDI had a presence in Newtown, but since then, more than 80 volunteer handlers and their dogs have provided stress relief and comfort at public and private schools, and at special events. Most of the volunteers in Newtown are from the community, or nearby communities.

One of those handlers is Kathryn Zaharek of Newtown. Newtown has a passion for dogs, Ms Zaharek observed, so it seemed a natural extension to create a TDI chapter here, to allow the group to have a more permanent presence.

“I see a real appreciation of dogs,” said Ms Zaharek, and particularly, she has seen an appreciation of therapy dogs.

 “I sort of stumbled into dog therapy,” she said, after adopting her St Bernard, Bella, three years ago, while living in Virginia. “I would take Bella places and she would just look up at people, and want them to pet her. People kept asking if she was a therapy dog.”

Recognizing that her dog had that something special that makes a dog ideal for therapy training, she decided to pursue certification. Ms Zaharek settled on TDI, after much research, feeling that the organization would have the proper approach to training her and her dog.

At 100 pounds, Bella is a large dog, but that is not a drawback when making therapy visits, said Ms Zaharek.

“She kind of looks like a great big teddy bear. People are not taken aback by her size,” she said. Bella has a “sweet temperament. She really has a heart of gold,” she said.

In Virginia, Ms Zaharek and Bella brought furry comfort to residents in nursing homes. This past summer, the Newtown native moved back to her hometown. “I was busy settling my kids into their new life, and Bella and I had not really done much therapy visiting,” said Ms Zaharek.

But since 12/14, the pair has had a busy schedule. “We have been in the schools, and wherever we have been invited,” she said.



Supporting The Community

“Since December 2012,” said Ms Zaharek, “TDI established a different system to operate in Newtown to better support the community. The president of TDI, Ursula Kemp, centralized how members are contacted and scheduled for visits. She also established an additional layer of screening for both the dogs and the people.”

The Newtown chapter’s additional layers of evaluation to what is generally required of TDI certified dogs and handlers were put into practice to ensure that the dogs and people visiting are able to handle unusual situations that occur in a post-disaster stress zone: which is how TDI categorizes Newtown, after 12/14. In Newtown, dogs and handlers must be comfortable in large groups, and able to handle different people coming at them from different angles, for instance. The handler’s role is to focus on the dog, not to offer advice or counsel.

“When things happen, people look at how they can contribute. I happen to have this really remarkable dog. I can help in this way. I love dogs,” said Ms Zaharek, “and I see the positive effect they can have.”

Dr Irvin R. Jennings, medical and executive director of Family & Children’s Aid (FCA) in Danbury and a child psychologist for 40 years, had his eyes opened, he said, as to the benefits of therapy dogs. Dr Jennings has offered counseling at Reed Intermediate School (RIS), along with others from Danbury Hospital, Wellmore, and FCA since December 15.

“It became obvious, very quickly, that the dogs were soothing and relaxing to the families, and especially to the children,” Dr Jennings said. “This was my first experience with therapy dogs, and I was delighted to see how effective they were at putting children at ease.”

So impressed with the dogs was Dr Jennings after witnessing the interactions between children and the dogs at RIS, that he hopes to incorporate therapy dogs into the day-to-day practice at FCA. “They’ve been fantastic,” said Dr Jennings.

The children at St Rose School were introduced to canine therapy shortly after 12/14, said Director of Parish Education Pam Arsenault. “We dealt mainly with Sister Mary and her dog, Luke, from New Jersey, where Sister teachers high school,” said Ms Arsenault. Luke, a border collie, is a certified TDI crisis dog, meaning he has been further trained for trauma therapy situations. Four times a week, Sister Mary and Luke would come from New Jersey to visit religious classes at St Rose, and visit in the classrooms. Sister Mary and Luke also facilitated a special session for St Rose parents, responding to the crisis from a spiritual point of view, she said.


Opening Up

“It’s incredible. One time, I witnessed the children with their hands all on Luke, as he was just lying there, taking it in. The children just opened up, and started talking [about the tragedy]. But it was a safe and peaceful setting, there was no great sadness or crying. It was beautiful,” Ms Arsenault said. “I never understood therapy dogs until this crisis,” she said. “Luke was invaluable because of his training. It’s amazing.”

Bella and Ms Zaharek were invited to St Rose School, beginning in early March, as part of the reading program, said St Rose School librarian Lynn Lewis. “We just wanted to tap into that, and there is the comfort piece, of course, too,” said Ms Lewis.

So far, each of the K through 5 students has met in the library with Bella. “We read a story together,” Ms Lewis said, “and the kids spend time with her, and ask Kathryn about her.” Bella will be visiting individual classrooms and small groups of students as the school year continues, she said.

“It’s all happy times. The kids look forward to her visits. It’s all very positive and exciting,” Ms Lewis said.

At Reed Intermediate School, where therapy dogs have been stationed every day since December, Principal Jay Smith was effusive in his praise. “You talk to parents, to kids, to any adults in the building, and it’s all remarkable,” said Mr Smith. “Youngsters you couldn’t get a smile out of would meet with the dogs and perk right up,” he said.

The dogs give the children a sense of empowerment, as handlers allow the youngsters to hold the leashes or walk with them, or even through the enthusiasm generated by trading cards that keep the children in contact with the handlers and dogs.



Children Respond To The Dogs

The visits from the therapy dogs have generated a huge amount of outside interest in dogs, Mr Smith said. The library has many books on dog breeds now, and several children have expressed interest in the Bethel 4-H Club, where the group focuses on dogs, rather than livestock.

Better yet, he said, the children are using the dogs as a springboard for writing.

“At this age, it is always important to write for an audience,” Mr Smith explained. “I have at least 150 letters in my office, written to me, about what the dogs have done for a child,” he said.

The school now hosts six teams a day, in three-hour slots, Mr Smith said, and the teams will remain at RIS until the end of the school year.

“The dogs have been a real gift to us,” he said.

Newtown Middle School secretary Terri Greenfield enthusiastically endorsed the therapy dogs that now visit the Queen Street school twice a week.

“The kids gravitate right to the dogs. It’s love in a big, furry ball,” she said. “There’s no judgment from the dogs, and it’s been great for the staff and students,” said Ms Greenfield.

Three dogs at a time are posted in the lobby of the school, Mondays and Wednesdays, for an hour at a time. While there have been no complaints, hosting the dogs in the lobby allows the school to be respectful of anyone with allergies or phobias, Ms Greenfield said.

“The best thing [about the therapy dog visits],” said Ms Greenfield, “is the smiles, and the happiness they bring. It’s a bright spot in the day.”

By having a local TDI chapter, Ms Zaharek said, the therapy dogs and handlers will provide an ongoing presence in town that offers more stability.

“The local chapter is vested in the community, and is made up of a great mix of people,” she said. The chapter will focus not only on the post-traumatic effects of 12/14, she emphasized, but on being available to any hospital, group home, nursing home, or special event that invites them.

To schedule a visit from a therapy dog in Newtown, contact tdichapter268@gmail.com.

“We have only one purpose,” said Ms Zaharek. “To share our dogs and help others.”

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