There is nothing like a big smooch, gentle touch or a wet nose nuzzle with a happy dog.
But social distancing rules, due to the impact of COVID-19, have created a barrier between those in need of canine therapy visits and the special pups that can give them a little TLC.
Recognizing the need for these services doesn’t stop, the Florida-based nonprofit Canine Assisted Therapy has launched a TeleDog program to bring people and therapy dogs face to face, either virtually or through window visits.
“We realized how this was going to impact us,” said Courtney Trzcinski, executive director and CEO of the organization.
About 120 volunteer certified pet therapy teams, consisting of a dog and its human, help children and adults by achieving specific physical, cognitive, social or emotional goals through interaction. The organization impacts about 300,000 people annually from events such as presentations and informational booths, workplace and facility visits and individual engagements.
An otherwise nonverbal senior talks during puppy time, with a paw in hand. A child’s reading skills improve as the dog lays or sits to listen attentively. A stressed individual’s blood pressure lowers as he or she gently pets or strokes the canine.
Trzcinski’s team of staff and volunteers brainstormed for a solution. That’s when a new window of opportunity was realized. To build morale in the workplace, a pup can be the top dog at a business Zoom meeting. A child can read to a dog on FaceTime. During a linkup, a resident at an assisted living facility reaches out for the pup at a window.
Virtual visits take some camera creativity, said volunteer Jahmila Boswell, who, with her 4-year-old Great Dane Dalis, have been making in-person calls to schools and facilities until “it all came to a halting stop.”
“Right now, there are no parades through hospital halls, there’s no Therapy Dog Thursdays,” she said.
But there is technology.
“I have her focus on me but I reverse the camera,” Boswell said, about a virtual session she and Dalis were participating in. “She’ll give a paw and roll over. The client was holding out her hand, smiling and reaching for Dalis’ paw.”
Like many South Floridians, Karen Mizrachi, a mother of three children, the oldest in third grade, is faced with additional at-home school duties. Looking to boost morale, she arranged a virtual reading visit with therapy dog Jessie for her son Sam, who is in first grade.
“Sam already knew Jessie from the therapy dog’s weekly visits to his kindergarten class last year,” Mizrachi said.
Holly Rosenberg, engagement director at YourLife of Coconut Creek Memory Care, said the residents, viewing a large-screen television, responded to the Zoom connection to canine therapy dogs.
“It worked well for us. The dogs did tricks – one even balanced a biscuit on his nose,” she said.
As for the learning curve to master a variety of social media platforms, “it’s getting easier,” Rosenberg said. “We’ve certainly been doing a lot of that lately so our residents can connect with their loved ones.”
Window visits are a thing too.
Boswell and Dalis made a recent facility visit in which the dog made eye contact through the front glass doors with residents inside.
“You cannot underestimate the value of this service,” said Boswell, who works as a counselor. “Dogs help you.”
The dog-human therapy teams also thrive on the engagement.
While there is certainly a future for virtual and window visits, Boswell said her dog sits by the door ready to go into action with the next client – and Boswell also misses the person-to-person interaction.
“Personally, I get so much joy, it’s indescribable,” she said.
Visit catdogs.org to learn more about Canine Assisted Therapy, its services and how to request a visit.