Newtown-Strong Therapy Dogs: Local Program Offers Ongoing, Unconditional Joy And Comfort
Therapy dogs have been around for years, but many Newtown residents were introduced to them following 12/14. When residents began looking for something to help them grieve, many found dogs waiting to be petted, hugged, talked to, or even sat beside in silence.
Formed in the wake of that terrible day, Newtown-Strong Therapy Dogs (NSTD) has continued to flourish and grow since. Today, nearly three dozens canine-handler teams are available to meet people of all ages during events both celebratory and sorrowful.
While borne out of tragedy, NSTD remains active and localized. That makes it different from many other comfort dog programs, according to its founder. In many other cases, therapy dog teams are called on to respond to a tragic event. They drive or fly in to a location, offer what comfort they can, sometimes for a few months, but then they return to their homes.
Sandy Hook resident and professional dog trainer Ann Marie Cioffi formed NSTD, she said, after seeing the response by fellow residents to her dog Libby in the immediate aftermath of the shootings that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Libby, a Golden Retriever, was already certified at that time through Therapy Dogs International, according to Ms Cioffi. When Ms Cioffi began thinking about forming a localized therapy dog group, however, she decided to go with a different program. After doing research, she found Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, a 501(c)(3) organization based in northern New Jersey.
The organization "evaluates, tests, trains, and qualifies owners and their well-behaved dogs as therapy dog teams," according to its website. "These teams give unconditional love, boost self-esteem, and relieve loneliness and boredom," it continues.
"I like who they are and their standards," said Ms Cioffi, who spent a few hours on the phone with a Bright & Beautiful representative within weeks of the Sandy Hook shootings. Ms Cioffi was directed to Alice Anderson Quinn, an Ellington-based trainer associated with Bright & Beautiful.
Ms Cioffi and Libby, joined by Marianna Beard and two of her dogs, traveled to Ellington and were certified by Ms Quinn within weeks of 12/14.
Two more canine-handler teams were tested and certified through Bright & Beautiful within the next few weeks, said Ms Cioffi. That group became the original core of Newtown-Strong Therapy Dogs.
"It was at that point that people started coming to me and asking me what it would take to become a therapy dog handler," Ms Cioffi said June 22. She was joined that afternoon by three additional handlers: Jen Franke, who has also been serving as assistant director for NSTD for the past year; Colleen Chieffalo; and Kathy Maguire.
"We already had our name," Ms Cioffi added. "That was the beginning of the dog training for the Newtown-Strong Therapy Dogs."
Ms Beard is no longer associated with Newtown-Strong, according to Ms Cioffi.
By late summer 2013, eight more teams were certified by Ms Cioffi. The owner of Cayberry Golden Retrievers in Newtown, Ms Cioffi has been training dogs since 1997.
"We wanted to make sure we had some nice local dogs for Newtown," Ms Cioffi said. "They were all local, which was always the intention of this group."
Based on her visits with Libby in December 2012, Ms Cioffi felt there were many people who would benefit from continued visits with therapy dogs.
"We felt such a need for this community," Ms Cioffi said. "So many people needed that therapy dog.
"The reason I wanted to start this local group," she continued, "was because we had dogs in from all over the country, but I knew that they weren't necessarily going to be hanging around in the aftermath months."
The latest group of handlers, four local residents, finished the latest course and took their certification test earlier this year.
Since its founding, NSTD has grown to its current roster of 34 dogs and approximately 30 handlers ("A few people have more than one certified dog," Ms Cioffi explained). Ms Cioffi has become a certified Bright & Beautiful trainer and handles all the training for NSTD. She also continues to work with Alice Anderson Quinn to serve as an evaluator for Bright & Beautiful.
NSTD includes mixed breeds and rescues, goldendoodles, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, at least one St Bernard, and sheepadoodles.
"It's not so much about the breed, but the inherent temperament," said Ms Cioffi. "Without that, we can't train a therapy dog.
Each canine-handler team must go through the three month handler's course.
"The dogs can have basic obedience training with anyone and anywhere, as long as it's positive training," she said. The Bright & Beautiful training, however - done only by Ms Cioffi for NSTD - is done "so that we know our dogs are 100 percent reliable, 100 percent trained. They can be in any situation and be stable."
Handler's training, she said, exposes the dogs to a little bit of everything, from medical equipment, elevators, and big doors to large crowds, children, and people yelling and arguing.
"It's not easy to train these dogs to do polite meet and greets," said Ms Cioffi. "They have to learn to sit still, to be calm, when they just want to run to people."
The handler's training is for the people working with the dogs. NSTD also offers foundational training, which is the step that takes dogs to the level of becoming therapy dogs. Handlers pay Ms Cioffi for their training as well as for the foundation training if their dogs need that service.
Ms Cioffi rents Dodgingtown firehouse for the training sessions. Membership and registration fees are also paid to Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs.
"We never ask for money," Ms Cioffi said of NSTD and its appearances. "This is all volunteer work."
Donations are accepted, however, and used to help cover the cost of equipment that benefits the entire group. A tent to provide cover and shade during public events has been purchased by NSTD thanks to donations, Ms Cioffi said. Vests and patches that identify the dogs as NSTD members have also been purchased with such funds.
"Our personal expenses - things like gas to get to events or even food when we're out at appearances - that comes out of our own pockets," said Ms Cioffi. "We don't use donations for anything like that."
'A Valuable Experience'
Colleen Chieffalo and her dog Mason have been part of NSTD for two years. Jen Franke and Esther and Kathy Maguire and Maggie Mae have been with the group for three years. All of the women are proud owners of golden retrievers.
Ms Franke called it a gift that she and her dog are part of Newtown-Strong Therapy Dogs. She became the owner of a golden retriever named Esther in July 2013.
A donation from Honor Therapy Dogs in Charlotte, the then-six-month-old dog was flown in to Newark, N.J., and became a member of the Franke family upon her arrival in Newtown. It was Ms Franke's charge, she said, to take a dog inherently bred to be nice and train her to become a therapy dog.
"It was like a blessing from God," Ms Franke said. "I never had a dog in my life. I never thought I could do this. But I made a commitment to my kids, and myself, to train her. This has been the most amazing experience of my life. I needed to do this for our family."
Esther has been a "tremendous" help to Ms Franke's son, who lost friends on 12/14, she said.
"It is the most valuable experience of my life," she continued. The comfort offered by Esther extends well beyond her home, of course.
"I am humbled by every opportunity I have to give back to the community," Ms Franke said. "I am grateful to have this gift to give back."
Retiree Kathy Maguire said she and her dog Maggie Mae went through handler's and foundation training with Ms Cioffi after Ms Maguire felt compelled to become a therapy dog handler.
Maggie Mae is one of seven certified Reading, Education & Assistance Dogs (READ) within NSTD. She is trained to listen to children as they read to her in their school settings.
"It's been wonderful," said Ms Maguire.
Colleen Chieffalo is one of the few NSTD handlers who does not live in town.
"My children were very young" when 12/14 happened, she said. "That hit very close to home for us. The best man of our wedding, his daughter was in one of the first grade classrooms, and she survived," she shared.
Her dog Mason is "so calm, and he loves to visit people," she said. She and Mason are part of a group that regularly visits a special education classroom in a local school.
"That is so rewarding, to see these kids," Ms Chieffalo said. "They look so forward to him being there."
Always By Invitation
Today, Newtown-Strong Therapy Dogs teams visit Maplewoods at Newtown, Bethel, and Danbury; other healthcare and living facilities; and local schools on a weekly basis. They have also been invited to attend wakes, birthday parties, and other events.
"We only go to places and events by invitation," Ms Cioffi said. "We don't ever just show up anywhere."
They have visited high schools and local universities during exam times and have even been invited to visit private homes to help children overcome a fear of dogs.
"We have had a lot of requests from people who are ill," said Ms Cioffi. "We get all kinds of requests, and we try to fill as many as possible."
NSTD has had requests from people in hospice, parents of children who are having surgery, and others.
"We put requests out to our members and we try to respond to as many as possible," Ms Cioffi said.
The group is, according to Ms Franke, "a permanent fixture" in the Labor Day Parade and Newtown Lions Club events, including the Great Pootatuck Duck Race and Great Pumpkin Races.
NSTD teams have also been special guests at blessing of the animal events at Newtown United Methodist Church and St Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church as well as the annual Ann's Place Festival of Trees fundraiser in Danbury, according to the women.
Last month, the group was the special guest for the final Hearts of Hope-Newtown painting party of the 2017-18 season.
NSTD dogs and their handlers were invited to join painters in the church hall of Newtown United Methodist Church during the 90-minute event on June 20. Sixteen teams responded, socializing among themselves and also greeting many of those who attended the celebration.
Hearts of Hope Founder Judy Pedersen told The Newtown Bee that the therapy dogs and their handlers were invited to join the party because of the quiet comfort offered.
"They always support us," she said last month. "They bring their dogs just for comfort and for the enjoyment of the folks who are there" at gatherings, she added.
The hearts that were painted during that evening, which was also the fifth anniversary for HOH-Newtown, were given to the handlers, according to Ms Pedersen.
NSTD teams also do Sandy Hook Organization for Prosperity events, including Passport to Sandy Hook and Halloween Walk.
"All of the events that SHOP puts on," said Ms Cioffi, "we do all of them. That's how we got our start and becoming known."
Shortly after 12/14, a number of Newtown High School Class of 1987 graduates opened Sandy Hook Arts Center for Kids (SHACK). Situated in one of the business units at 100 Church Hill Road, for approximately one year, SHACK offered art programs for all ages.
"Wendy Mitchell opened SHACK, and then SHOP member Maribeth Hemingway contacted me and asked if we could bring a therapy dog there," Ms Cioffi recalled. "That was instrumental in getting our feet off the ground."
Ms Hemingway calls NSTD "an amazing group."
"The handlers are amazing people," she said this week. "All of the time they put in, even before the dogs get certified. They do this for others, on their time and with their own money, and they love what they do. To know that they're right there - that's really touched my life."
Ms Hemingway does not hesitate, she said, to reach out with an invitation to NSTD any time SHOP is planning an event.
"They have the unconditional love to bring their dogs out to see others," she said of Newtown-Strong Therapy Dog's handlers. "And the dogs have the unconditional love to be there for everyone."