Shirley Turner remembers the sorrow that accompanied her with each visit to her dying
mother at an Ohio hospice. The Elcott City resident also remembers another regular
visitor – one who came with a dog and let Turner stoke its silky coat.
“It was a break from the anxiety there,” she says. Mow Turner and her golden retriever
Maggie spend an hour each month visiting families and patients at the Gilchrist Hospice
Center in Baltimore.
Cindy Knowlton was a teacher for 18 years before switching gears and becoming a manager
for a veterinary hospital, She loved the new job but missed working with the kids.
Now, the Glenwood resident takes her dog, Spree, to Faith Baptist School in Laurel,
where the two sit on a blanket and listen to children read. At the end of each
story, Spree, a Belgian Tervuren, will do a few tricks for them.
At John’s Hopkins Hospital, Wayne Sternberger of Highland and his 7 year old English
setter, Rigel, visit adult psychiatric patients.
“He’s a ‘rug,’” says Sternberger, “He gets on the couch and promptly puts his head
in their laps. They pet him and he goes to sleep.”
These owners and their pets are members of National Capital Therapy Dogs (NCTD),
also known as Caring Canines, an all volunteer organization founded in 1990 by Sternberger,
his wife, Sharon and the late Jane Barthalomew. NCTD trains teams of dogs and their
handlers to visit those who need a pet’s unconditional love or its help with therapy.
Their work takes two forms: the meet-and-greet type, called animal–assisted activities,
like visiting elderly patients in nursing homes or sick children in the hospital;
or participating in specific treatment plans, called animal–assisted therapy, like
letting a hairdresser recovering form a stroke regain strength and skill by grooming
Therapy dogs come in all sizes and breeds. They can be show champions or rescued
animals. They can be laid back or lively. The common trait they all share is a sound
temperament and a handler who is a caring listener.
Potential participants go through testing for temperament and training to become
certified. NCTD is an affiliate of the Delta Society Pet Partners, and it uses Delta’s
nationally recognized screening and training standards.
To be considered, a dog mist be at least 1 year old, be in good health and have
lived with the current handler for at least six months. They mist always be obedient,
never showing any aggression or lunging at people or other dogs.
“You must have control of your dog at all times,” says Turner, who, with Maggie has
volunteered with NCTD for three years. She also was a member of a similar program
in Chicago for two years.
Those who qualify are trained by Delta licensed instructors and volunteers, and
the society’s pets are evaluated and certified by licensed evaluators. Every two
years, teams must be recertified.
Training is just as stringent for the dogs’ human partners, Once a team is certified
and given an assignment, handlers visit the facility with a mentor to become familiar
with their new role before bringing a pet along. When they finally begin visiting
as a team. The mentor observes at first to make sure all goes smoothly.
“A one-hour visit is about all the dogs cam take, It’s a lot of stimulation,” says
Turner, who tries to spend time with as many patients as possible. When she walks
Maggie, people are drawn to the dog’s beautiful copper-colored coat and big brown
“Maggie likes to lean into you to be petted,” says her owner. Sometimes she puts
her dog in a chair and wheels her over to a hospital bed so a patient can see or
The pair also visit memory-impaired residents at Copper Ridge, a nursing facility
“They react to her with their memories. Once in a while, they’ll talk about dogs
they had,” says Turner, but most don’t remember them at the next visit.
On the other hand, the children at Faith Baptist always remember Spree, says Knowlton.
They tell her they’ve been waiting to see her dog all week. The team went through
a special certification to participate in the READ (Reading Education Assistance
Dogs) program, which helps struggling young readers.
“Spree is an objective listener,” says Knowlton, “who never judges.”
While on the job, Spree sits between child and handler and appears to follow along
with the story, If Knowlton points to a page, Spree is trained to follow with her
“She reduces anxiety,” explains Knowlton. This translates into confidence and improved
reading skills. If a child stumbles on a word, Knowlton might say, “Spree wasn’t
sure about that part. Can you repeat that to her?” If a student needs to work on
comprehension, Knowlton asks “Can you explain what that means to Spree?” And they
To reward children regardless of their reading level, Knowlton made special flash
cards printed with tricks. At the end of a reading session, the child chooses one
and must read the trick to Spree before she will perform it.
For animal lovers that don’t have a dog but think their cat or rabbit might make
a great therapy animal, NCTD welcomes all pets.
The next training session begins Nov.3 in Columbia. For more information about how
to become involved with a pet or simply as a volunteer, check out the group’s Web
site at www.nctdinc.org or call 31-585-NCTD