Divine Canine’s Therapy Dogs are Healing Helpers.
Words by Amy Lombardi
Over 11 million people follow the Dodo on Facebook, a website dedicated to sharing touching stories and videos of animals. People lose track of time on thedodo.com, an hour easily flies by watching toddlers nap with their pet dogs or cats pushing breakable things off ledges. Animals just make us feel good.
It was that reason Divine Canines, one of Austin’s two therapy dog organizations, formed in 2004 when, according to their website, a “group of dog lovers” created the nonprofit “to share the unconditional love of dogs with people in special needs facilities.” The Travis Heights-based organization started with a handful of teams, a professional trainer, and a partnership with the Austin State Hospital.
Today Divine Canines boasts over 120 dog-and-handler teams who serve over 100 organizations in the Central Texas area. Volunteers visit hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, and more. In addition, they offer stress relief study breaks for college students during exam weeks at UT, affection to senior citizens, or a fluffy reading buddy, like Jeanne Martin’s golden doodle Austin, at local elementary school libraries.
Jeanne and Austin began volunteering with Divine Canines in 2015 after her retirement. “I was looking for a place to volunteer. For me, it was the perfect blend of getting to spend time with my dog and to continue to work with youth.”
After visiting area hospitals and other sites, Jeanne and Austin settled into a weekly reading program for third graders, The Barking Book Buddies, at eastside’s Barbara Jordan Early College Prep in partnership with Communities and Schools. Jeanne explains, “This program encourages a child to read to a dog. Because dogs are nonjudgmental, they don’t care if you’re reading slow or fast, and they have a calming influence on kids working to become better readers.”
“The dog had such a soothing effect this little boy stopped his crying. It reinforced why I would go every week with my dog.”
For two years now, Jeanne along with Barking Book Buddies program director Meghan Burgess and participating students gather in a circle, with Austin in the middle. As kids take turns reading a page, they also take turns petting Austin, who eventually stretches out so comfortably everybody can easily feel his fur.
One week Jeanne noticed a particular student quite upset. “He’d had a bad day. He was crying when he walked in, and he sat down near Austin. Very slowly, he reached out to Austin, and as he started to pet him, you could see calm come over him. The dog had such a soothing effect this little boy stopped his crying,” Jeanne recalls. This is what Divine Canines program was designed to do. “It reinforced why I would go every week with my dog,” Jeanne affirms.
Divine Canines Director Max Woodfin joined the organization in 2013 after spending 15 years working in the nonprofit world. He was interested in being part of a smaller organization, “where decisions could be made more quickly, which also meant if mistakes were made, they could be corrected quickly.” What really hooked Max though was hanging out with dogs “whenever he pleased.”
Organizing teams, events, and fundraisers like the annual Barks for Beers, assisting site coordinators, communicating with board members and choosing new site partners are just a few ways Max and his pup Rosebud spend their days. He is also charged with coordinating class schedules between volunteers-in-training and Divine Canines’ professional dog trainer, Paul Mann of Canine Behavioral Concepts. The organization has strict but fair standards of behavior for both dogs and their handlers.
Potential therapy dogs with Divine Canines must pass the Canine Good Citizen test, a national behavioral test, participate in a ‘screening‘ interview, and pass a 5-week specialized class geared towards working in service, where both dog and owner learn to navigate noise, distraction, medical apparatus and personalities. While animal therapy may not be as widely accepted as the mainstream therapeutic methods, there are clear benefits from its patients. Max cautiously adds, “As an interested, professional observer, I see more and more disciplines appreciating the value of therapy dogs.”
Regardless, therapy dog work is also a keen time management trick. Bonding with your dog while volunteering in the community is a complete win-win and a great way to make up for all the time spent on the thedodo.com.