Williston-based Therapy Dogs of VT unleashes its mission
By Luke Baynes
There was a time when Therapy Dogs of Vermont founder Steve Reiman considered giving up his vocation.
He was tired. It was becoming too much work. He had other things going on in his life.
A visit to a hospital with his German shepherds Lily and Jordan changed his mind.
When Reiman and the canine half-sisters entered the hospital room of a 14-year-old girl, she was motionless from a brain aneurysm that had rendered her comatose. Reiman took the girl’s hand and placed it on Lily’s head. He saw her fingers wiggle.
Then Reiman told Jordan to get on the bed with the girl. Jordan complied and put her head on the girl’s chest. The girl then lifted both her arms and hugged Jordan. It was the first substantial movement she made on the road to full recovery from her aneurysm.
Reiman said the incident brought tears to his eyes.
“Here was something that two dogs could do that doctors and nurses couldn’t,” he said.
Twenty years since its founding, TDV is still going strong, with 287 certified therapy dog teams in 137 sites across Vermont and into New York, New Hampshire and Quebec.
Although the group trains dogs of all breeds—with the exception of wolf hybrids—requirements for qualification include a minimum of one year of age and six months with their current handler, an absence of dog-to-dog aggression and a social personality.
Executive Director Bob Uerz, a Williston resident was the only paid staff member among the 200-plus volunteers, said that unlike the service dog concept—in which dogs are assigned to people in need—both therapy dogs and their owners are trained and certified.
“The thing about Therapy Dogs, which is different from other types of service dogs, is we’re really focusing on certifying teams,” Uerz said. “The word ‘dog’ is prominent, obviously, but it’s really the person—the handler—as well as the dog itself that we certify.”
Uerz said the group’s mission statement, while verbose, is apt.
“Our mission is maybe a little bit long, but it’s: ‘Touching hearts, bringing joy, offering comfort and enriching lives with our certified therapy dogs,’” said Uerz. “That kind of encompasses all the different venues that we’re in right now, and we hope to be expanding to new areas all the time. One area in particular is working with returning vets.”
Although TDV has yet to establish a significant foothold with military veterans, it has for several years been working with the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston on a program that promotes youth reading by having kids read books to therapy dogs.
“The idea is if you’re reading to a dog instead of a person, kids will be less nervous,” said Library Director Marti Fiske.
Youth Services Librarian Jill Coffrin said the “Reading with Frosty and Friends” program, which began with Williston resident Cathy Messina’s dog Frosty sitting with kids for 10-minute reading sessions, has snowballed into a weekly phenomenon during the school year.
“It’s been really, really a great thing,” Coffrin said.
Williston resident Nancy Kahn, whose 3-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel Sophie has been a therapy dog since she met the 1-year age requirement, remarked with amazement on the joy animals can bring to those in need.
“I enjoy going out with her and seeing how happy it makes people,” said Kahn. “It’s amazing to me how a dog can light up a room or help a kid.”
Kahn’s sentiments recall another story shared by Reiman.
During a hospital visit, Reiman and Lily encountered a young girl stricken with cancer. Lily, per her usual jovial personality, presented a Frisbee to the girl, but was continually rebuffed.
The next week, when Reiman and Lily returned to the hospital, they were told by staff that the girl had been waiting all week for Lily’s arrival.
After playing with Lily prior to receiving radiation treatment, the girl was told that she could bring a Polaroid picture of Lily into the treatment room.
Reiman said he overheard the girl tell her mother: “I told you all along I wanted to die. Now I want to live.”
For more information, visit www.therapydogs.org, email [email protected] or send snail mail to Therapy Dogs of Vermont
P.O. Box 1271,Williston, Vt. 05495-1271.