Therapy Dog

Have you ever felt better after petting a cat or a dog?  There is scientific evidence that petting a friendly animal can make you feel better.  Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation, trust, and easing stress.  The conclusion is that pets, especially dogs, seem to be good for our health.

I know that after a long tiring day, there is nothing better than sitting in my chair at home with a cat on the foot of the Lazy-Boy chair and a dog on my lap. As a lifelong cat person, I have always enjoyed petting a purring cat.  As a teenager I wanted to be a dog trainer, and I begged for a dog.  Once I finally got one, we found out I was allergic to dog dander, and I was told I could not be close to them for any length of time.  So, I was a cat person for 30 years.  Then, one day I said to a friend, “I wish I could get a dog.” After explaining I was allergic to them, I was told “Get a poodle!”  No one had ever told me there were hypoallergenic dogs!

In just a few months I had my first poodle, Roxy, who started me on a wonderful journey of excelling at dog sports. I eventually went on to work with Florida Poodle Rescue and have fostered over 40 dogs. I have a second poodle, Springer, whom I helped rescue, and now a Havanese named Gibbs who was a gift from a friend who felt he needed more activity.

Now as a dog trainer for 12 years, who runs agility course and choreographs dog dancing, and as a tricks instructor and tricks show producer, I concur that pets are good for us in many ways. They provide love, companionship, exercise from walking and doing dog sports, and ways to socialize and give back to the community.

As my mother progressed through Alzheimer’s disease, I found it frustrating to visit her and have her just sit there and not respond to me.  Then I started bringing one of my dogs, and once he was on her lap, she would actually smile.  She would pet him and call him “sweet thing”, which was more of a response than I got.

Over time I decided to get Gibbs certified as an official Therapy Dog and started a program at the Dog Training Club of Tampa to help people and their dogs get official certification to be a Dog Therapy Team.  I now do one or two visits a week to local medical centers and consistently find lots of requests for Therapy Dog teams from local nursing homes, rehab centers, hospitals, schools, and even libraries and hospices.

While it is hard to observe how many people are in permanent medically restricted states, I love it when I come down the hall with Gibbs and see empty faces suddenly smile.  He sits up or stands in his special stroller with his fluffy face and big black eyes, and he is ready to work.  It’s hard work too, letting everyone pet him and tell him how good looking he is!  Some want to see tricks, and some just want to pet him. Most enjoy a few minutes of release from their pain or in some cases, emptiness, from just the simple gesture of petting a dog.

I tell them his name is Mr. Gibbs, because he is important, and sometimes he wears a tie or a fancy costume that relates to a holiday.  Now that they know he is a tricks dog, I usually have him perform a few tricks, so I bring props for short shows and treats to keep him engaged.

I have many club friends who do Dog Therapy work, but the need seems to keep growing.  There are even groups who go to major disasters with their dogs to help the survivors and workers relax and recharge.  I am assisting with Therapy Dog classes to expand the availability of Therapy Dog Teams in the Tampa Bay area, because dogs are good for all of us!

I’m doing it to bring smiles to faces. Here he is! Are you smiling too?

Penny Noriega has been a member of OLLI-USF since 2006. She was our OLLI Technology Coordinator from 2011 to 2014. Penny has taken many courses on science and nature, history, literature, art, technology, health and wellness. She regularly teaches course for OLLI-USF. Her classes for Winter/Spring 2019 include Trendy Tricks for Your Dog, Apps for Travelers and Get Me an Uber! Options for Getting Around Tampa.


4 Replies to “Therapy Dog”

  1. I knew much, but not all of your story, Penny! You found a way to connect with your mother and give her some comfort and simple affection despite her condition. What power our beloved animals have!

  2. Thanks for telling more of the details of your “service dog” work. Very interesting. Made me feel happier and more relaxed just reading about your dog work. Maybe sometime you can write more about your choreographing dog dancing.

  3. I had a dear friend who also did therapy work with her dog Cotton. Thank you and Mr. Gibbs for your service. Some times little things like petting a dog are huge!

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