A child stands in front of his class, book in hand, ready to read. The boy hesitates, fear and anxiety evident on his face. He stumbles a bit on some words, face flushing. He needs help to get through the short text and when he takes his seat again, it’s clear he’s distressed.
That same child is in the same classroom later, but this time he’s sitting on the floor in front of a dog. The boy has the same book in his hand and he’s reading again, only this time, the words are clear and he’s smiling, knowing that even if he stumbles, the dog won’t judge him.
This time, when he closes the book he’s got a look of pride on his face, confidence clearly growing in his abilities – thanks to the four-legged friend beside him.
The program is called R.E.A.D.S (Reading Education Assistance Dogs for Students) and it’s one of many programs provided by Kindly Canines, a local group of therapy dogs that have been bringing joy to the area since 2003.
An all-volunteer group, Kindly Canines takes therapy dogs into libraries, schools, and nursing homes to provide necessary respite for students and residents with the presence of their animals.
The group also works with veterans, hospice care clients, oncology patients and families, and children testifying in court.
These therapy dogs are not emotional support animals or service dogs – those furry friends provide a service or support to their handlers. The Kindly Canines are there for the people they visit – to share smiles and joy.
And the group is looking for dogs and handlers to join them.
Each dog and handler have been tested and observed by a certified Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD), Tester/Observer. ATD is the authority in certifying therapy dog teams on a national level.
“A good therapy dog is at least one year old and has had a relationship with the handler for at least six months,” said Milan Shepherd, past president of Kindly Canines. “It’s important the dog can remain calm around people, distractions, and other dogs.”
A Kindly Canine dog also listens to his or her handler and enjoys interacting with people, allowing strangers to pet him or her.
It’s also important for a Kindly Canine dog to be comfortable around medical equipment like wheelchairs, walkers, and canes.
“In order to obtain certification, a person has to complete a background check and the required ATD documentation,” Shepherd said.
ATD’s testing is designed to make sure you and your dog have a good relationship with each other and that your dog has the right temperament for therapy dog work. After the test, a Tester/Observer (T/O) will monitor you and your dog during three visits to facilities that include two visits to a medical facility. During these supervised visits, the T/O will instruct you and your dog on the art of visiting and give you advice and guidance while observing you in action. If all goes well, the T/O will pass you and your dog and recommend you for certification with ATD.
Kindly Canines has certified ATD Tester/Observers who are members so it is not necessary to go outside of the organization to find one.
Once a therapy team passes the testing/observing, and all paperwork has been submitted to ATD and approved, they may join Kindly Canines.
The group also provides stress-relief for college students at Hagerstown Area Community College and Shippensburg University, as well as participates in various area events throughout the year.
“I believe there are people in our community who could be a Kindly Canines therapy team,” said Valerie Sunday, recruiting director for Kindly Canines. “For about 2 years, during COVID, we volunteered very little. However, more recently by the end of 2022 and into this year, requests for therapy dog visits have more than doubled. ”
One of the true rewards in being a part of the group is seeing the difference you and your dog can make in the world.
One memorable experience happened in a local radiation center where eight patients and family members waited. A Kindly Canine, Gabby, was moving from person to person in the room, when for some reason, she decided to return to a woman who had a bandana on her head due to hair loss.
When the lady leaned forward and began to pet Gabby, she started to cry. A friend nearby said softy, “She knew you had a bad headache today and needed extra attention.”
Residents in memory care units sometimes speak to a visiting therapy dog when previously they had been silent for months.”
Another visit at an extended care facility saw a gentleman who never moved his right hand. The Kindly Canine handler was asked to switch to the other side of the bed, so the resident could use his left hand. Before that could happen, the man on the bed reached out – with his right hand – to pet the visiting therapy dog.
As humans, sometimes we can get caught up in responsibilities and careers and obligations and we can miss the seemingly small moments in life – and sometimes those moments are the ones that mean more than we will ever know. Dogs can show us those moments if we’re willing to look.
You, too, can witness the miracle animals can bring to the world around them by joining Kindly Canines. Make a difference for so many people today and check out Kindly Canines on Facebook.