Guest Post: Ernest the Therapy Dog goes to School

Ernest, a big shaggy golden retriever, had been kept in a cage all day most of his life. His previous owner didn’t even say goodbye to him when she surrendered him to the rescue group. Instead, she said, “I didn’t take good care of him, but who cares?”

Ernest was nine years old when we adopted him. He used to be called something different, but we always rename our rescue dogs—new life, new name. He was so happy to be free. But more than that, he couldn’t get enough of the human touch. He wanted us to pat him ALL the time. Whenever we took our hand off him, he barked. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much else done for a time. Eventually he felt more secure and comfortable that we weren’t going to leave him or lock him away, and he stopped barking. That’s when I knew he’d make a great therapy dog.

We worked with Ernest to get him certified with TDI (Therapy Dogs International). His trainer said he was born to be a therapy dog. He proudly wears his red therapy dog bandanna. He’s worked in nursing homes, libraries and colleges.

Perhaps his favorite place to visit is a first-grade classroom. The first day he went in, the kids were so excited they couldn’t stay in their seats. They all ran up and hugged him. Of course, Ernest thought this was great. The teacher, Ms. Dooley, had everything set up for him. He laid on a special mat while the kids came up, one by one, and read to him. Some of the kids went right up and put their arms around him while they read. Others were a bit anxious and kept a bit of distance. Ernest didn’t mind. He nearly fell asleep he was so relaxed. They all showed him the pictures in the books. When he was done, one little boy whispered in his ear, “Please come back.”

Of course, we did. The next time they read him stories that they’d written themselves about his visit. “Ernest is yellow. Ernest is big. Ernest is soft as cotton.” They wrote. “Ernest is my best friend, and I’m his,” a girl wrote. Sometimes they give him pictures or notes. Ernest gave them trading cards with his picture on the front.

Now Ernest visits them once a month. The dog who lived most of his life locked up in a cage is now free to give his love to a classroom full of kids who love him back.

And he gets patted just as much as he could ever want.

Written by Peggy Frezon for LAA Pet Talk. Peggy Frezon is contributing editor of All Creatures magazine, and author of books about the human-animal bond including Faithfully Yours, and the forthcoming book for kids, The Dog in the Dentist Chair (Paraclete Press, January 2019). Visit her at

If you’re a pet owner with writing skills, Lincoln Animal Ambassadors would love to hear from you! We’re especially looking for content about birds, exotic animals, and horses. Content may take the form of an advice column or how-to articles. You may even simply wish to act as an expert consultant. If you’re interested, please post in the comments and we’ll be in touch.


What Are You Doing With Your Seconds?

For the past five years, Stuart Stofferahn and his therapy dog Buckley have visited hospice patients, an experience that has changed his life.

Community service has always been part of Stuart’s life. His mom taught in the public-school system for 35 years. Stuart considers her a model of patience and an inspiration. His dad advocated for farmers, and was a school board member, state legislator, and state elected official. Stuart calls his dad a hero. As for Stuart, he’s worked in schools, the church, and the United States military for most of his life. In addition, he’s taught classes through Junior Achievement, volunteered at hospices, and currently teaches for the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders counties. On his website, Stuart writes, “I guess you can say [service] is in my blood.”

Stuart & Buckley, Photo from website
Stuart & Buckley, Photo from website

Animals have also always been part of Stuart’s life. Stuart grew up on a farm with animals all around. The barn cats kept the mouse population in check. He doesn’t remember his family ever specifically looking for a puppy, but dogs seemed to just show up on the farm. Stuart still remembers how sad he felt when the family moved to the city and left their Golden Retriever behind with the new owners. For several years, the family made trips back to the farm and would check on Sandy, but then one day she was gone. With animals being such a constant force in his life, it was natural that as an adult Stuart became active with animal rescue and in particular the Golden Retriever Rescue.

After his divorce, Stuart found himself soul-searching and needing to fill a void. He already owned a seven-year-old dog named Comet, but decided to add a puppy to his household. When Stuart met Buckley in 2009, the two instantly clicked. Even though, according to Stuart, Comet helped raise Buckley, a bond was also developing between Stuart and Buckley. The two spend their days and nights together. Buckley slept with Stuart, and also hung close while Stuart did yard work.

Stuart’s most memorable moments with Buckley came during this time. “One day some kids came up to the yard,” Stuart said. “Buckley ran up to them, but they ran off. The next time the kids came, Buckley crawled up to them. This time they stayed.” And that’s when Stuart knew that Buckley possessed “a deep understanding of how to connect with people.”

Stuart immediately acted on his discovery. He read about Domesti-PUPS online and contacted them. After that, Stuart and Buckley attended classes to learn how Buckley could become a therapy dog. By the time Buckley turned four, he had passed the Canine Good Citizen test. Not long after, the two began visiting nursing and assisted-living facilities as part of the Domesti-PUPS team. Half of the people in assisted-living are never visited, Stewart said, and ‘Buckley and I wanted to change all that.

But the two had only just begun. Due to his being a self-described introvert, Stuart soon found himself wanting to extend visits past the few allotted minutes, so that he could build deeper relationships with patients. Stuart also began to feel that Buckley’s talents were being underutilized, and that he would be happier spending more time with patients. Stuart contacted Tabitha Health Care and asked if they were offering therapy pet services to hospice patients. The volunteer coordinator invited him in for a visit to chat about reinitializing their program with the help of Domesti-PUPS.

Fast forward to the fall of 2018, the two have logged over 500 hours and visited over 60 hospice patients. When I asked Stuart to share some memorable moments, he said there was no one moment, but did tell me that Buckley enjoyed cuddling up to patients and sometimes would even choose specific toys to present when the two visited.

Stuart also recalled a visit with one of his first patients, where the two talked about a book called Final Gifts by Mary Callahan. In her book, Callahan shares a story from a visit with a client, who says the first time she noticed the second hand on a clock is when she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. “I was talking to my client about that,” said Stuart, “and it rang very true for her. Before I left, she looked at me, and she asked, ‘Now what you are doing with your seconds?’ In that moment, everything changed for me.”

Finally, Stuart expressed how privileged he had felt to receive invitations to memorial services. He would usually go ahead of time to see the family. They were not always aware that their past loved one had received visits from a therapy dog team and would express their gratitude to him. According to Stuart, family members can’t always be around for their loved one as often as they would like and “tears of comfort would flow to know someone had been there in their absence.”

This past October, Stewart and Buckley retired from therapy work. Buckley began to struggle with some health issues, and so the visits had stopped being a joy to him. Now he enjoys walks around the neighborhood and lazy days in the sun.

As for Stuart, he recently wrote a book about Buckley called The Love of  a Cold Wet Nose. At first, Stuart ignored his friends who would tell him to write down his hospice stories, but then he decided to take their advice. Thanks to the encouragement of some of his patients, who told him “your gifts need to be out there,” Stuart’s book even includes some poems.

Stuart’s second project draws on his education roots. Although he already had a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in educational administration, in 2017 he completed his doctorate in educational administration. As part of the latter, which Stuart calls “the last leg of his education journey,” Stuart wrote a dissertation that focused on improving employment opportunities for people on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Stuart was inspired by the challenges he observed in a cousin whose autistic son is learning how to live on his own by attending the Minnesota Life College. The latter is a vocational and life skills training program for young adults with learning differences and autism spectrum disorders. Not content to simply write a paper about an issue, Stuart put his words into action by co-founding the Nebraska Transition College.

Although he’s been a motivational speaker for years, Stuart says that his message is more focused thanks to hospice. He’s learned that life goes by quickly, and eagerly shares that message with others. One of this favorite analogies compares the use of time to credit cards. “If I give you a debit card and on that card are all the seconds that you have to live, and wherever you are, wherever you go, you have to swipe that card, and you don’t know how many seconds on your card, does that change how your present?”

When I asked what advice he’d give to others, he suggested that people should listen to what the world says and then act on it. “I became aware that Buckley had a special connection with people,” said Stuart, “and so I chose the path of pet therapy.”


Guest Post: Therapy Dogs Take a Bite Out of Exam Week

Thanks to Dr. K. L. Zupancic (PhD, Principal Researcher) and Nicole Trevena-Flores (M.A., Southeast Community College Psychology/Sociology Student Club Faculty Sponsor) for allowing me to reprint their article which first appeared in Arts & Science Newsletter.

SCC presentation at the League for Innovation in the Community College
2016 Innovations Conference


This is a story about research at the community college level that culminated in fruition, with the presentation of our hard work on this project being accepted at the 2016 Innovations Conference. In 2013, Ms. Trevena-Flores and I wrote a proposal to the Southeast Community College administration requesting that we be allowed to have therapy dogs on campus during finals week, first for the purpose of mitigating stress amongst our college students during finals week, and second for the purpose of providing our students with the opportunity to actively engage in scholarly research on an on-going basis. Back in 2013, we could not have envisioned the far-reaching positive consequences of this research project.

Dr. Rose Suggett, our department chairperson, presented me with the opportunity of submitting a proposal to the 2016 Innovations Conference on the work Ms. Trevena-Flores, the student Psychology/Sociology Club, and I were doing with the therapy dogs during finals week at SCC. All of us worked diligently to get the proposal written and it was the students who came up with the creative, catchy title for our forum and poster presentations at this conference. Shortly after I began work on this conference presentation proposal, the thought of taking therapy dog teams to this conference popped into my head. After all, it was a presentation on therapy dogs during finals week! Dr. Suggett and I began brainstorming on how we would get two large dogs (a Standard Poodle and a Golden doodle) and two other adults (the dogs’ handlers) to Chicago should our presentation be accepted. As for my tiny therapy dog, a five and one-half pound Chihuahua, I could simply tote her to Chicago in my backpack.

The presentation was accepted! We took one of the SCC mini vans to Chicago which transported the big dogs, their handlers, and all of our presentation materials. As a bonus, the conference was held at a dog-friendly hotel in downtown Chicago. Over the weekend that we were at this conference, many times people would come up to us in the lobby, in the elevators, and in the hotel hallways, to ask to pet our dogs. One woman, who stated she had a phobia of dogs, came up to us and talked with us about our therapy dogs. Much to my delight, this woman showed up at our forum presentation! People working at this hotel also came up to us telling us heartfelt stories of their own dogs. One maintenance worker, with tears in his eyes, told me that he had recently lost his beloved “red-nosed Pit Bull.”

Numerous people attended our poster presentation and there was a nice group of attendees at our forum presentation–participants who had many questions about SCC and our therapy dogs during finals week project. Ms. Trevena-Flores, the Psychology/Sociology Student Club, and I had created a pilot project, demonstrated that this on-going activity/research project could work and continues to benefit not only our students but SCC staff and faculty as well, and elicited the help and support of multiple people within the SCC organization to make our dream become a reality. As an Organizational Psychologist, I would say that the Therapy Dogs during Finals Week project is an ideal example of people within an organization working hand in hand for the better good of everyone within that organization including our community and society as well! Thanks SCC for providing us with this opportunity.

How Therapy Dogs Came to Southeast Community College

Ever since developing a curriculum for young people about the interconnected relationship between people and pets, I’ve been interested in how we can not only make a difference in the lives of animals but also how they can make a difference in our lives. When I heard Kathy Zupanic’s story about how she and her dog, Skylar–along with the Southeast Community College’s student Psychology/Sociology Club and their faculty mentor–created and then piloted a “Therapy Dogs During Finals Week” program, I had to know more.

After two years of begging, he allowed me to get a terrier-mix who I named Trixie; with all of my excellent begging skills I was destined for a career with dogs.

Kathy describes her family as “Old World Slovenian”. Her immigrant grandparents had ten children and were too poor to ever consider having indoor pets. Kathy’s parents therefore were first-generation Americans. As a little girl, Kathy entreated with her father for a dog. Although he didn’t want her to go through the emotional pain of perhaps having to give up her dog, he eventually agreed.

Kathy’s love of animals grew stronger as she matured. She recalls watching the Westminster Kennel Club dog show each year and wishing for parents who were in the “dog business.” Her early favorite group was the terriers, followed by the toys.

kathyanddogsThis fascination with terriers led her as an adult to purchase two: a West Highland White Terrier named Colleen, and a brindle Scottish Terrier named Lindsay. Thanks to being friends with a family that owned a pack of Chihuahuas when she was a child, she also developed an affection for this breed, and so as an adult she likewise added them to her pack. A friend of hers who was helping Kathy with obedience training recommended she try one of her Chihuahuas in agility at the Greater Lincoln Obedience Club. Kathy was not only hooked after that class, but grew in her addiction “to dogs, dog-related activities, and animals in general”.

After seeing a “blue” Chihuahua, Kathy fell in love with this rare version of the breed. She likes animals that are unusual, and the colors reminded her of a tuxedo cat she had once known. The color and markings of the “blue” Chihuahua were so beautiful that she wanted one of her own, and ultimately she bought a puppy from a family in Missouri. “Skylar cried and cried all the way to my home. I felt so sad to be taking her away from her family.”

Sklar Becomes a Therapy Dog

Kathy says that Skylar was always loving and affectionate. Skylar was the “baby” of the family. She’d spend the entire day with family member, Carmen. She’d curl up in a blanket on Carmen’s computer table. Skylar was so loving with the other dogs, she quickly found her place with Kathy’s older Chihuahuas. Skylar even developed a tight friendship with one of them, an agility dog named Aishan who became Skylar’s guardian and protector.

Skylar is so cute and so smart. When I see her, I feel extremely happy inside. I love Skylar tremendously and am grateful that she’s in my life.

When Skylar was still a puppy, Kathy began taking Skylar to work with her. People were so happy to have Skylar around that Kathy began to think of using her as a therapy dog. She decided to sign up for Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, which she had heard of through her involvement with the Greater Lincoln Obedience Club.

For Kathy to use Skylar as a therapy dog, Skylar would need to pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test). According to Kathy, because of Skylar’s calm and confident demeanor, training didn’t take much effort. In Kathy’s words: “Skylar appears to accurately ‘read’ her environment. She’s not fearful about interacting with strangers (as long as they’re not being overly loud or angry) and can be quiet when the situation calls for this behavior. All of these traits make for an excellent therapy dog.”

skylarOnce Skylar was certified, Skylar had many opportunities to demonstrate her therapy dog skills. Often she would help Kathy teach her beginning obedience at Greater Lincoln Obedience Club. “Skylar was confident enough to be able to demonstrate obedience skills with me in the center of the ring while we were surrounded by around ten big dogs and their handlers.”

One of the cutest things Kathy remembers from Skylar’s therapy dog work was a day when Kathy took her to visit the women at St. Monica’s Treatment Center. One of the women sat her nine-month-old baby on the floor, and Skylar crawled up in the boy’s lap. Then Skylar stood up on her hind legs to reach his cheek and gave him a kiss. The toddler giggled and hugged Skylar.

Therapy Dogs and Exam Weeks

Those early days of using Skylar as a therapy dog, combined with Kathy’s own research into the value of using therapy dogs in higher education, led her to an idea of using therapy dogs during exam weeks at Southeast Community College where she teaches. Being the type of person who likes to act on an idea “that benefits all species,” Kathy didn’t just let her dream sit but instead approached the faculty sponsor of the Psychology/Sociology Club at SCC. She talked with Ms. Trevena-Flores because they shared a mutual of love of dogs and because the club mentor could provide a group of students to help with research projects.

Everything fell into place. Kathy’s immediate boss, the Chair of Social Sciences, was supportive of her project. The Student Activities Director, who was also a dog lover, agreed to the use of the Student Center. And finally, Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs carried the correct type of liability insurance for its teams, which was a huge factor in Kathy’s favor with SCC administration. In 2013, Kathy and Ms. Trevena-Flores submitted their proposal. It was approved.

Being able to combine my love of dogs with my work as an educator and social scientist, and to include one of my own beloved dogs in this project, is one of the best gifts I could have received this holiday season.

Three times a day, on three days during finals week, handlers bring their therapy dogs to the Student Center at SCC. Although Kathy originally saw students as the project’s target audience, students, faculty, and staff come to the Student Center to spend time with the dogs. The hope is that this interaction will result in reduced stress during what is normally a stressful time. And of course the dogs love all the attention. “It appears to be a very positive reciprocal relationship for everyone involved.”

Kathy shared one special moment from last quarter. Kathy noticed that one of the therapy dogs was the same breed as the dean’s dog. “I ran downstairs to her office and asked her if she would come upstairs with me as I had a surprise for her. She spent time with the handler and her dog and later stated that she too (the Dean) experiences joy and relaxation from interacting with the dogs.”

Much of the research on the project is being done via surveys. For the most part, the feedback (both on the surveys and by word of mouth) has been positive. The students continue to want therapy dogs during finals week. Many faculty members support  the project.

In 2015, Kathy and her fellow colleague, Ms. Trevena-Flores, were given the opportunity to submit a proposal to present their suggested model for therapy dogs in higher education at a national conference. The acceptance of their proposal came that December. Kathy described the news as “the best gift Skylar could have given her”. This past March, a group from SCC—consisting of Kathy, Skylar, other therapy dog teams, and students—were given the honor of presenting their research at a conference in Chicago. Check back tomorrow to read Kathy’s write-up about that big event.

At the writing of this article, Kathy’s project is ongoing. Kathy says that the latter will, “culminate in the creation of a longitudinal study on therapy dogs in higher education research article”. She also noted that everyone involved has been talking about expanding the project to other campuses. “As long as I’m teaching at SCC, the program will continue.”

Kathy has additional dreams involving animal welfare. She has completed 80% of her Master of Science in Applied Behavioral Analysis for Companion Animals. With that knowledge in hand, she hopes after graduation to develop a Mighty-Mini training school that will specialize in Toy and small Terrier breeds, and would offer small-dog breed training and behavior interventions.


Skylar, now nine years old and suffering from painful arthritis, retired from therapy dog work last spring. She’s doing well on medication, but Kathy doesn’t want to place her in stressful situations. Instead, Skylar continues to enjoy going out and about with Kathy, while also getting to take long rests.

My beloved dogs are the most important individuals in my life and I owe my personal happiness and wellness to them. I am blessed to be a pet parent.