One day while the Omaha Love on a Leash therapy dog chapter visited a kindergarten class with troubled children, they met with a student who had recently lost his father and had been non-responsive in class. The Omaha Love on a Leash told the boy that he could talk with the therapy dog and tell him anything and that the dog would listen. The boy leaned in, lifted the dog’s ear, and began softly talking with him. According to BJ Addison, the current Omaha Love on a Leash president, it was an amazing moment that even had the teachers crying. Moments like these exemplifies why pet therapy exists.
Almost three years ago, the Omaha Love on a Leash chapter began as a way to provide volunteer certified therapy dogs to agencies and schools in the metro area. Members hail from Omaha, Council Bluffs, Fremont, and southwest Iowa and southeast Nebraska. Currently, the organization has 80 certified Love on a Leash teams. Members work together as a chapter, using phone calls, email, and social media to promote pet therapy and to setup visits to facilities such as the one mentioned above.
ALLISON: How did you personally get started?
BJ: I love dogs and people and had always wanted to get involved with an activity that would include both. Nine years ago I went to an event at the Nebraska Humane Society and there was a booth about a therapy dog group. I took my Chocolate Lab, Coco, who loves people to the training. Eight years later, we’re still doing therapy visits. I now also have another certified LOAL dog, Lucy, my beagle-bassett.
ALLISON: How did you set up contacts in the community?
BJ: We receive requests from the community. Various care centers, hospitals, schools, libraries, retirement residences will contact us asking if our therapy dogs can visit either on a monthly basis or sometimes just a one-time event such as when we go to some local colleges for a “De-stressing Event” prior to finals week.
ALLISON: What are the most typical places therapy pets are taken? The most unusual places?
BJ: Retirement communities and care centers are our most common places we take our therapy pets. As for unusual places, we have gone to churches for their family picnics, to camps for special needs children and children in the foster care system, and blessing of the animal events, We also have dogs that go to court to help children when they are appearing in court to help them stay calm during the proceedings.
ALLISON: How often do therapy visits happen? How long is each visit? What do visits consist of?
BJ: The majority of our visits are once a month or occasionally twice a month. Each visit usually last an hour. What happens at visits varies by location. At some facilities we go room to room; others we gather in a large room and residents come in to visit with the dogs.
ALLISON: What are some of your memorable pet therapy moments?
BJ: On of our therapy dogs was visiting a fifth grade class on a regular basis. On this particular day a little girl had come to school late because her grandpa had passed away the evening before. The therapy dog spent his time sitting next to her. He knew! Dogs know things that humans don’t!
Once a counselor was trying to get information a child that had been through a very traumatic situation. They brought in a dog and the counselor said that the child could just tell the dog what happened. The child proceeded to tell the entire horrible event while the counselor sat at her desk and documented. Our dogs have so many “secrets.”
We had completed our therapy dog visit at a local hospital and were standing outside chatting before heading to our cars. Our dogs were still wearing their vests. A grandma and a 3-4 year old little girl came over. The little girl interacted quietly with the dogs, hugging them and talking to them. The woman told us that the girl’s infant brother had just passed away inside the hospital. That would have also been her grandson. Sometimes you just feel you are at the right place at the right time to enable the wonderful power of the therapy dogs.
ALLISON: Why should someone volunteer with your chapter or a similar group?
BJ: Dog therapy is win for all. If your dog loves people, by becoming involved with pet therapy you strengthen the bond with your dog. The dogs get so excited when they know they are going on visits and seeing all the people. Dog therapy is a smile for all those who get to meet the dog and the owner.
Love on a Leash doesn’t provide training for potential therapy handlers and their pets. For this reason, it recommend teams have a basic obedience class prior to starting the Love on a Leash certification process. When teams have completed the Love on a Leash “Control Evaluation,” they then complete ten supervised visits with a certified Love on a Leash member. If dog therapy interests you, contact Omaha Love on a Leash or to inquire about certifying other animals contact the national Love on a Leash program.