Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs

Sergeant Yanzsa could very well be the Lehigh Valley’s busiest volunteer.

He visits the elderly, brings smiles to the homebound, listens intently as young students practice reading aloud, and spends time at events recruiting like-minded citizens to serve their communities. Sergeant, known to most as “Sarge,” is quite a unique volunteer: he’s only six years old.

He has big brown eyes and wears a perpetual smile. He also has a wagging tail—Sarge is a fluffy English golden retriever. At the impressionable age of four months, Sarge’s owner, Virginia Yanzsa, signed him up for obedience classes. The instructor instantly took note of the puppy’s sweet disposition and calm nature.

“After a couple weeks, the trainer said Sarge needed to be considered for a therapy dog,” Virginia says.

Virginia had no idea what a therapy dog even was.

Therapy dogs can be any size and any breed or mix. Their most important characteristic is temperament. Their job is to provide serenity and friendship, so they must be at ease with people, not bark, and have an all-around calm disposition while working.

Sarge is a member of Lehigh Valley Therapy Dogs, which is a branch of the nationwide dog therapy association, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Once a pup has celebrated his or her first birthday, testing for certification begins. Manners, obedience, and the owner’s handling skills are all measured. It isn’t just the therapy dog who is volunteering his time—each human companion is also volunteering and is always present alongside their canine.

Before a dog can tout the title of therapy dog, he or she must exhibit appropriate behaviors during three observed visits to varying medical facilities. After receiving a thumbs up from trained and qualified observers, owners can then apply for official certification. Then, owners must decide what kind of environment best suits their newly minted therapy dog. Some are fantastic with children, while others may gravitate toward a more relaxed setting, such as a nursing home. All-star Sarge is happy to handle both.

Sarge spent one of his observed visits in an Allentown nursing home and proved he was born with a compassionate soul. Without guidance or encouragement, Sarge strolled quietly to a woman in a wheelchair. “He walked gently over and put his head in her hand on her lap,” recalls Virginia, admitting the encounter brought a tear to her eye. “That was the start of it.”

The loving pooch also volunteers at ShareCare Faith in Action, a local non-profit. Established in 1991, the program benefits from the help of do-gooders to offer caregiving assistance to the elderly and individuals with disabilities. They provide trips to the grocery store, hairdresser, and medical appointments; chores around the house; and social visits. In 2015, executive director Lynn Marie Heiney incorporated another service: Caregiver Canines.

Lynn says this unique program is for people who may have had dogs in the past, but can’t have them now. With home visits, Caregiver Canines introduces the opportunity for a dog and client to develop a
one-on-one relationship.

One beneficiary of the service is 93-year-old ShareCare patron Carol Hafner, who was the first person to utilize Caregiver Canines two years ago. With hearing and vision loss, she can’t care for a dog of her own, but she loves animals and had missed their companionship. She now looks forward to her dates with Sarge, who likes to sit in a chair so that he and his human friend can be next to each other at the same level.

Carol even has a special cushion just for him. “This big dog hops up nicely and I sit in the chair beside him and he loves to be petted,” she says, laughing. “If you don’t pet him right away, this big, gentle paw comes at you like, ‘Come on, start petting me!’ He’s really cute and a very sweet dog.”

Caregiver Canines is so sought-after that there is a waiting list of hopeful hosts looking forward to making a new furry friend. Lynn needs additional dogs to join the program. “We only have five dogs. We need more,” she explains. Lynn is looking for pooches smaller than 100-pound-Sarge to accommodate clients who have limited space.

With his vast repertoire, Sarge switches seamlessly between visits with Carol to appointments with first-graders at Freemansburg Elementary School, where he props himself on a library chair and listens to stories.

Margaret Kavanaugh, the school’s head custodian, implemented Reading Dogs at the beginning of the 2016 school year. Familiar with therapy dogs and their ability to offer a judgement-free zone for blossoming readers, Margaret began reaching out to area organizations. Paws with Patience responded and their dogs started serving the students’ needs.

“To hear them go from mumbling to reading out loud—it’s pretty cool,” Margaret says. Like ShareCare, Reading Dogs is also on the prowl for more four-legged volunteers. When the school year ended in June, Sarge and two to three friends aided the kids for one hour once a month. Due to popularity, that meant only a portion of the students were allotted five minutes with a dog. “The more dogs there are, the more kids get to read,” says Margaret. “I hope there are more looking to do this.”

Toward the end of the school year, the first graders were asked to write thank-you letters for Sarge and other members of Paws with Patience. Margaret expected a few students to follow through. On collection day, the total astounded her: 70 enthusiastic readers proclaimed their appreciation.

It’s been about five years since Sarge became a therapy dog and the role fits him well. At home, he’s playful and likes to walk around the yard. As soon as his collar and leash are on, though, Sarge is ready to assist.

“He knows we’re working,” says Virginia. “He knows he’s got a job to do.” This attitude is fitting—the Latin origin of “sergeant” translates to “one who serves.”

If you would like to volunteer your therapy dog for ShareCare’s Caregiver Canine Program, call Lynn at 610.867.2177.

To help build confident readers with your therapy dog at Freemansburg Elementary, email Margaret at [email protected]

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