All dogs go to heaven, but there’s no doubt that the dogs serving the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) deserve that blessed destination.
The smiles his therapy dogs have created have been Don Vaughan’s favorite part of volunteering for ATD for the last 15 years. ATD’s mission is to “bring happiness and cheer to people, young and old alike,” and if contagious grins are any indication of success, Don thinks he’s done well. In the Rochester area, ATD dogs can be found comforting those in need at hospitals, nursing homes, schools, correctional facilities, libraries and the airport.
During his time with the ATD, Don and his wife, Stephanie, have had three registered therapy dogs: Majo (a Japanese mastiff), Gaag (a rescued Saint Bernard whose name means porcupine in Ojibwe), and Napolean (a French mastiff). Don, a photojournalist, has always been interested in animals, while Stephanie, spending much of her time as a patient in children’s hospitals when she was growing up, fondly recalls the many volunteers she encountered.
“Pet therapy not only gave us something to do together, but it gave her a chance to help give back to those who helped her along the way,” Don said. “And, for me, it offered an opportunity to work with animals beyond just having one as a pet.”
Since 2016, Don has been on the ATD’s board of directors. He’s serving his third term on the board. This past year, his duties with ATD expanded further when he was elected to be the group’s treasurer, and he also works to test potential therapy dog candidates.
With the exception of office staff, the ATD consists entirely of volunteer members, and it boasts approximately 15,000 teams in the U.S., Canada and other international locations. The group provides its members with important supports like liability insurance and a national therapy dog register. Despite its wide reach, Don is surprised that many people, even some interested in animal therapy, haven’t heard of the organization.
Most of the Vaughans’ volunteering with the ATD has been centered in correctional facilities. Don recalls one woman at a correctional facility he visited overcoming her initial fear of his large, 120-pound Japanese mastiff Majo.
“Within just a few minutes and after explaining to the lady that Majo was a registered therapy dog who wouldn’t hurt her, the lady climbed down off the table, sat on the floor and cuddled with Majo in her lap. Talk about making a difference!”
Over the past seven years, Kate Herness and her dog Boots — a mixed boxer and American Staffordshire terrier that looks a little like a tiger-striped pit bull — have volunteered together at the Minnesota Children’s Museum–Rochester, Olmsted Medical Center, and the Madonna Meadows senior care facility. Most recently, the team has been busy at Rochester International Airport.
When Boots goes to work at the airport dressed in her bright red ATD vest, she’s supporting the airport’s Caring Tails program.
In order for Boots and Kate to volunteer at the airport, a rigorous FBI security check was required, and they always need to pass through airport security for each new visit.
Traveling can be an anxiety-producing experience, and Kate says she and Boots can often sense when people are nervous or tense.
She says they’ve helped comfort everyone from parents dropping of their children for a flight to patients traveling to Rochester who have left their own pets at home.
Part of the benefit that therapy dogs create is to provide something for an individual suffering trauma to focus on other than his or her own pain. For instance, Kate recalls how a friend who had a leg amputated could talk about Boots and interact with her rather than dwell on his lost limb.
Kate loves her volunteer work with ATD so much that she is training a second therapy dog, Bugsy (a rescued pit bull). She hopes Bugsy will be ready to comfort those in need of a little love by January and says Rochesterites are lucky to have someone like Don here to test potential therapy dogs.
While ATD therapy dog teams are helping those around them, Kate thinks she might be getting the best part of the experience.
“Every time I volunteer I get filled up,” she said. “I walk away with such a sense of happiness.”