by Lou Mancinelli
During Easter Sunday, Edie Williams and Magic Johnson, her Jack Russell Terrier, were at the Rydal Park Retirement Community in Abington to provide humor, warmth and companionship for the elderly residents. You might say they brought “pup and circumstance.”
“Have you ever seen a bunny mow a lawn?” Williams, who says she is “a young 65,” asked them. She and Magic, 8, who has been a certified therapy dog for six years, were dressed like bunnies and wore bunny ears. They gave out candy.
Hokey? Yes. But healing, and something to take your mind away from the fact that you are not so young anymore while you wait for Easter dinner. Yes, it is that too.
So on command, Magic hopped up on his hind legs and took command of a toy lawnmower.
Magic became a certified therapy dog through the Y2K9s Dog Sports Club in Wyndmoor, where members recently certified their 100th therapy dog, according to the requirements set forth by Therapy Dog International (TDI).
When her mother-in-law was in a home for seniors four years ago, the same one she and Magic visited this Easter, Williams wanted to bring her own dog to visit her mom and bring some change and excitement to her day.
But if she wanted to bring Milton S. Hershey, her senior, now therapy-retired dachshund, he would have to become a certified therapy dog due to various legal and insurance reasons. Where can I do that? she wondered.
There were not many places. Williams searched and found John Bickel, of Eagleville, PA, a certified TDI tester. She found the Y2K9s club, eventually connected the two and organized the first TDI testing events at the club.
Milton, who is almost 15 years old, became TDI-certified in the year 2000. Milton’s sister, Monroe, became certified in 2001. Now Williams continues to organize testing for the club. From German shepherds to labs and corgis, rescue dogs and pure breeds, the club offers TDI testing (as well as the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen [CGC] certification), and offers a range of other classes, like obedience, agility, nosework, tricks, disc dog and flyball, a dog relay race. In its classes staff members stress positive reward training. Therapy dogs are different from service dogs, who are trained to help handicapped people like the blind, deaf and wheelchair-bound.
“There’s a real need to help people learn to train with their dogs in a positive rewards matter,” said Sally Silverman, member and assistant dog trainer, as well as freelance writer and public relations professional.
So when your dog urinates in the house, it is because you should have taken him out, according to Silverman. When he chews up your shoe, it is because you left it around. You should hit yourself on the nose with a rolled-up magazine instead of the dog, she joked.
A good therapy dog, Williams explained, is a dog who is calm, congenial, loves other people, behaves well around other dogs and is very connected with his/her owner.
“I think it’s critical,” said Williams, an Abington resident and former pharmaceutical scientist, about the owner-dog relationship. She has three dogs, and they are all certified therapy dogs as well as performers and competitors in flyball. “With the right personality in the right situation, any dog can succeed.”
According to Silverman, if your dog can get through 75 percent of the basic obedience class, there is a strong chance he/she can pass the TDI test.
As part of the exam, dogs are required to pass 13 individual testing exercises. The exam is designed to test a dog’s temperament, behavior and suitability to become a therapy dog. The American Kennel Club’s CGC also tests a dog’s ability to move about politely in pedestrian traffic and in public places. The two exams are often given together.
Raffe is Alexander Flegeal’s four-year-old mixed All-American breed. He was the 100th dog certified at Y2K9s. Fleagal, who was there for all the training, said he’s read “about every dog training book there is” and that Raffe was an exceptionally well behaved dog to begin with.
Flegeal runs (with his brother) AquaCorps, a company that installs and maintains aquariums and fish tanks in places like retirement homes, hospital, offices and homes. He wanted to bring Raffe with him on the job. Raffe’s been well received at some retirement homes.
“I think most of the credit goes to him,” said Flegeal, 24, of Fort Washington, about Raffe’s success in the class and with other people. “He loves to please people.”
When trained to handle various situations, therapy dogs can go into places like senior housing centers, schools and hospitals and exhibit that personality which has earned canines their honorable title as man’s best friend. In addition to his Easter gig, Magic Johnson visits the Abington Library once a month to sit while kids read to him.
According to founder Deb Norman, who now lives in North Carolina, “The club was founded in 1994 as Best Friends Dog Training Club. Our first classes were held in the hall of St Martin in the Fields, where I was a member. In 1999 we changed the name to Y2K9s. The following year we moved to our full-time spot in Wyndmoor.”
TDI is a volunteer organization, founded in 1976, dedicated to regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, schools and any other facility where therapy dogs are needed.
“We’re not a very big club,” said Silverman, “but still, that’s a lot of dogs going out into the world doing therapy work.”
Like Magic, whom Williams continues to take to the center, a promise she made to her mother-in-law before she died.
For more information, call 215-821-9259 or visit www.Y2K9s.net. Y2K9s Dog Sports Club is located at 1000 E. Mermaid Lane in Wyndmoor.