These Therapists Provide Needed Paws-itivity

By Marty Lee, contributor

If you have ever owned a dog, one that just knows your emotions, feelings, pain and happiness, you understand the joys of canine therapy. Dog owners know that special feeling when their pup cuddles up next to them on the couch – looking up with soulful eyes that just seem to say, “Don’t worry Mom, everything will be okay. I am here for you.”

During these trying times, is there any better way to cheer up heart and soul than sharing interaction with an understanding and smiling face? If you answer yes to that question, how about the cheer brought on by 20 smiling faces: The furry faces from Canine Assisted Therapy.

JKV Hosts A Therapy Dog Parade

Recently, a team of 20 therapy dogs and their owners from Canine Assisted Therapy, Inc. (C.A.T.) assembled outside the John Knox Village Centre Auditorium, South Florida’s premier Life-Plan Continuing Care Retirement Community in Pompano Beach. Their collective mission for the day was to bring smiles to the 1,000 residents and 800 employees of the Village during a Therapy Dog Parade covering a route winding past every Independent Living apartment building, as well as the advanced care residences at Gardens West, Seaside Cove and The Woodlands.

To assure physical distancing, the dogs were positioned in the front passenger, or back seats of cars, or in the open tailgates of SUVs. But even at a distance, the smiling faces of therapy dogs were sure to settle even the most unsettled among us. Many JKV residents watched the parade from their windows or apartment entrances as the assembly passed by.

The Elders at Gardens West, however, enjoyed the rare treat of being up close and personal under the residence’s porte-cochère. Each car stopped as pets and owners waved and offered smiles and well-wishes to all parade-watchers.

JKV Life Enrichment Coordinators Jacquee Thompson and Bea St. Pierre led the Therapy Dog Parade along the route. Jacquee praised C.A.T. for their thoroughness in planning, dedication and detail.

“Elise Samet, Volunteer Program Manager for C.A.T. was a pleasure to work with,” Jacquee said. “She and her team took care of every detail, from the involvement of her volunteers and therapists, to the fantastic vehicle decorating, to the arrival of the NBC 6 News crew. I simply got the word out to JKV residents and then led the way on parade day.”

As the parade stopped along the route, Jacquee responded to the residents’ reactions. “The residents were thrilled. The huge smiles and genuine look of love in their eyes told me how much this visit meant to them. The residents who were outside waiting for the parade to pass by just lit up at the sight of the dogs.”

John Knox Village canine therapy

Assisted Living Elders at John Knox Village’s Gardens West greet the therapy dogs from Canine Assisted Therapy, Inc. (C.A.T.), during JKV’s recent Therapy Dog Parade. Photo: Marty Lee

Jacquee said this is just one of the many programs planned with C.A.T. at JKV in the future. “Elise has already reached out on scheduling the next parade. We are also currently working with C.A.T. on a ‘Paw Pal’ program for our residents to correspond with therapy dogs. We are especially trying to focus on residents who may not be the most tech-savvy or own a computer or smartphone, but who want to stay active and involved in a safe way during the coronavirus pandemic.”

John Knox Village canine therapy

According to National Geographic, “Puppy dog eyes evolved so dogs could communicate with us.” Here therapist Rowan communicates with C.A.T. Executive Director Courtney Trzcinski. Photo: Marty Lee

The Canine Assisted Therapy Story

The John Knox Village Therapy Dog Parade is just one of many sponsored events arranged with C.A.T., a Ft. Lauderdale-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of those in need. C.A.T. works with volunteers and their dogs to provide animal assisted therapy and companionship to people in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospices and schools.

In an interview with The Gazette, Courtney Trzcinski, Executive Director/CEO of C.A.T. said, “The JKV parade was an amazing experience for our volunteers and staff. Being able to safely get out of the house and feel like we’re making a difference in the lives of others, even if just for a moment, is why we do what we do. Seeing the excitement and smiles on the faces of JKV’s residents was priceless.”

Among the many breeds participating in the parade were Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, and several other breeds both large and small. At present C.A.T. has 137 volunteers, 119 dogs and one pig.

While many therapy dogs are retrievers, the breed is not the determining factor. “Therapy dogs are born, not made,” Courtney said. “Therapy dogs seek out the attention of strangers, enjoy being in new and strange environments, are well behaved, have obedience training and love interacting with people. They also need to get along with other dogs and are not reactive.

John Knox Village canine therapy

C.A.T. volunteers (left to right) Lori Bale, Melinda Steinbacher, Lee Ann Runkle and Judy Eason make preparations before the Therapy Dog Parade at John Knox Village. Photo: Marty Lee

How Does A Dog Become A Therapist?

“To start the therapy dog process, interested individuals attend an Orientation/Information Session,” Courtney said. “The next step is the dog must pass the Canine Good Citizen Test, which is administered by local dog trainers.

“The third step is to participate in a therapy dog evaluation. Dogs who pass are then certified, mentored, insured, and placed in appropriate facilities.

“Definitely the most common tend to be Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and most recently Goldendoodles. However, the breed does not determine the therapy possibilities. It definitely depends on the specific dog regardless of the breed.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, C.A.T. had to re-evaluate its visitation methodology. While the desire for comfort and therapy has greatly increased, the need for precautions and physical distancing has also grown dramatically. A typical pre-pandemic month of events would have included:

  • One-on-one visits with seniors at nursing homes
  • Pet Parades at children’s hospitals or nursing homes
  • Read-a-thon and/or Bite Prevention Presentations at elementary schools
  • One-on-one visits with hospital patients
  • Group therapy visits with veterans
  • Group work with physical therapy patients
  • Visits with children with special needs
  • Airport terminal visits to lower passenger anxiety
  • Courthouse dogs sit with children testifying in Dependency Court
  • Group sessions with substance abuse teens in treatment centers

Courtney compared the services offered by C.A.T. both pre-pandemic and during our current health crisis.

“Pre-COVID, we actually had a waiting list of facilities requesting our services. In the last 10 years, C.A.T. has grown by word of mouth, so most of the facilities we serve, or events we participate in, have reached out to us directly. If the request is aligned with our mission and supports the demographic we serve, then we will always try to help.

“Post-COVID we have been seeking out possible ways to help. For example, we reached out to JKV and asked them if they would like us to do a parade for their residents. We have also reached out to CDTC (Children’s Diagnostic & Treatment Center), SOS Children’s Village, Woodhouse, Quantum House, and many other facilities to see if we could help in any way.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas H.S.

One of the largest and most impactful C.A.T. volunteer therapy programs occurred after the tragic shootings at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day 2018.

“Our organization had 25 dogs on campus to welcome the students back on the first day of school when they reopened after the shooting,” Courtney said. “They continued to stay on campus through the next two years. They were also a big part of the anniversary memorials, helped the grief-stricken at funerals, and were apart of many community events.

“Over the last two years we’ve seen our therapy dogs positively impact the lives of the students and staff directly affected by the tragic shooting at MSD. One student, who was shot, had a very difficult time going back to school. After meeting one of the therapy dogs in his homeroom, he immediately formed a bond with the special canine. Having the dog in class helped relax him and made it easier for him to engage with others. Each day at school got a little easier for him to manage because he was motivated to go and see the therapy dogs. To witness the human-animal bond firsthand like this is something very special.”

As a nonprofit organization you can help the mission of Canine Assisted Therapy, Inc. C.A.T. is funded primarily through family foundations, individual contributions, corporate sponsorships and fundraisers.

Courtney said that C.A.T. welcomes a variety of partnerships both corporate and community-wide. “Pet therapy visits can be sponsored. There are other sponsorship opportunities such as a partnership package that gets you therapy dog visits to your workplace, attention on social media [with over 180,000 followers on Facebook], and many other benefits.”

John Knox Village canine therapy

Volunteer Jill Cross and therapy dog Astro bring “Christmas in July” wishes to John Knox Village. Photo: Marty Lee

Discover The Benefits Of Therapy Dogs

Readers of The Gazette, who are involved in organizations that might benefit in sponsoring a therapy dog visit should visit the website: www.catdogs.org for more information. If you own a dog you think might be a great candidate as a therapy dog, get information for qualifications on the same website.

Canine Assisted Therapy, Inc. is located at 1040 NE 45th Street, Oakland Park, FL 33334. Call C.A.T. at (954) 990-5175.

You can also email the Executive Director/CEO, Courtney Trzcinski at courtney@catdogs.org with particular questions, sponsorship requests or further information.

To see more of how John Knox Village is staying strong and committed to enabling a lifestyle of overall wellness, visit (and be sure to “Like”) our Facebook page! And for more information about living at John Knox Village and the resort-like, maintenance-free lifestyle enjoyed by all members of the community even amid COVID-19, click here or call 954-783-4040 to get in touch with our friendly team. We’re now open for COVID-careful personalized tours!

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