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These puppies have a purpose

Therapy dogs have interesting stories of their own

By Shudder Hurd-Burnell
On May 7, 2018

Photo by Olivia Maher
Autumn, a therapy dog owned by Barbara Page, gets some attention from a student at a recent event.

Sometimes dogs are born with a purpose. Alaskan Huskies love sledding, Border Collies are skilled herders, and Golden Retrievers are popular service dogs. But just like us, some dogs show their true callings later than others.

Shelley Gartner is a volunteer with Caring Canines of Southern Vermont and her little dog, Bella, is a happy contributor to Castleton’s Paws program.

Born three years ago in Florida, Bella is the daughter of two show dogs. Her father, an accomplished performer from the Czech Republic, and her mother a performer from Florida.

Despite being bred for showing as well, Bella was deemed unable to compete due to an imperfection in her fur. A tiny amber-colored spot on her backside meant she would be sold off, as only dogs with pure white coats were worth keeping.

This is how Bella and Shelley met.

“I was looking for purebreds and I connected with someone in Clifton Park,” said Gartner. “I got her at 12 weeks and we’ve been together ever since.”

When Gartner got what has been her first and only dog, getting training, certifications and volunteering with her wasn’t on her mind at all.

Gartner was just looking for another companion to go along with her two parakeets, Burt and Ernie. The three were later joined by the turtle, Veronica, a 32-year-old red eared slider.

As you’d expect from a soon-to-be therapy dog, Bella got along well with the other animals in the house.

“But she does get jealous if I’m talking to them. You know, she’ll sit there and go ‘grrr’ like ‘excuse me but I’m here!” Gartner said.

Despite her jealous streak, people could always tell that she would have what it takes to get certified.

“Everyone kept saying she’d make a great therapy dog, so when she was a year old and we had gone through ... training and obedience training, I said what the heck I’ll try it,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Bentley
Shelly Gartner holds her dog, Bella, at a recent therapy dogs event.

Bella and Gartner are now members of the group Caring Canines of Southern Vermont. The group has partnered with Castleton to bring a variety of therapy dogs to campus every week. Barbra Page and Linda Barker are among others in the group who regularly come to paws.

to volunteer with their dog, though they all share a similar interest in helping others.

Before becoming a therapy dog owner, Barker discovered her interest in it during regular visits to her mother’s nursing home. Having two Lhasa Apsos at the time, she would bring her dogs along for visits. This is when she realized the benefits animals had on people.

“I saw what a difference they made in the people, especially at nursing homes,” Barker said. “And God, if you dress them up for Halloween and Christmas I mean they [the residents] just come alive. I always said, ‘When I retire that’s what I want to do.”

Now, with Caring Canines, that’s exactly what she does. She and her dog Murphee volunteer their time at grade schools, nursing homes and hospital psych wards, as well as our university.

“I keep him out of trouble by keeping busy,” she said.

Barbra Page, an owner who had her dog, Autumn, trained in the same class as Gartner and Bella, felt similarly.

“I remember seeing people bring dogs and hearing about it in elementary schools and it’s like, oh I would really like to do that with my dog,” Page said.

Autumn is an amazingly soft Golden Retriever who’s gone through more than just regularly therapy dog training.

It’s become normal at paws events to see Autumn high-fiving students, performing practiced jumps or walking patterns, or carefully retrieving dropped items like Page’s keys. She’s even become fond of carrying her own leash lately. These tricks never fail to amaze students and get some laughs.

Chello Taravella, a student and employee at the library where the events are held, is a fan of the program and likes to drop by when he’s in the area.

“It’s a really good stress reliever. I think it’s always fun to have dogs show up at the library or other places, so that way people can just go pet them, have a good time and relax,” he said.

Taravella was surprised to learn that the program was gone for a few weeks last month, saying he thought attendance was fairly good before that.

The Paws Program returned April 12 after a taking a break due to low attendance, according to Jamie Bentley. Students were sad to see the event stop, and greeted its return with open arms.

“They’re there to help us relax and to just have fun and I’m really glad that they’re here,” said Taravella. “I think it’s really amazing that we have this.”

The program will continue on from now to May 3, ending right before the start of finals. Students can expect the program to run regularly next semester.

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