NAPLES — Jazzy is a star.
Clad in a cherry-red vest that politely informs everyone she is a dog at work, the 4-month-old golden retriever pads through the hallways of the Naples hospital as if she knows all eyes are on her. They just might be.
Jazzy, after all, is a little brighter than your average pup, a little more Lassie than Marley.
She’s part of the assistance dog program at PAWS for Love, a group started two years ago by the Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance. PAWS for Love, which also has a therapy dog component, is sponsored by the Humane Society Naples and funded by private donations.
PAWS assistance dogs are trained primarily for placement with children and adolescents who have developmental disabilities. Jazzy hopefully will be placed with a child within the next four months, but in the meantime she’s participating in program outreach, such as the trips to NCH Downtown Naples Hospital.
For Jazzy, the trips provide a valuable opportunity for socialization. For NCH’s patients, it’s a bright spot in their treatment and a chance to use their healing bodies and voices to interact with a happy, fluffy puppy. Jazzy’s silky fur and winning personality make her a powerful rehab tool, says Rebekah DiMaria, a recreational therapist for NCH.
“They have to speak to the dog, reach out to the dog,” she says. “Sometimes people who can’t relate to human beings too well, they can to animals.”
During her recent visit, Jazzy stopped at each of NCH’s four rehab gyms. Her handler, Tiffany Campbell, gently guided the puppy around the rehab equipment, instructing her to sit, and then listened as the patients remembered aloud the pets they left behind at home, or pets that left them years ago.
Seeing Jazzy, rehab patient Marjorie Scott recalls the dogs she once owned.
“I’ve laughed and cried over them,” the Naples resident says.
She’s pleased to soak up some much-needed puppy love.
“It gets our mind off of what we have going,” Scott says. “They make us happy.”
PAWS for Love is the brainchild of Jeannie Bates, founder of Southwest Florida Professional Dog Trainers Alliance.
It’s a modestly sized initiative, which is what Bates wants. By keeping the program a certain size, she believes she’ll be able to closely serve the local community and those clients who, faced with the expense of raising a developmentally disabled child, also must confront the costs and long waiting lists associated with receiving a fully trained assistance dog.
Because donations and the Humane Society support the PAWS program, client families pay nothing to receive their dog, Bates says.
“The cost of a service dog can be $10,000 to $15,000 and there’s just no way those families could afford to get these dogs from a typical organization,” she says.
The PAWS training process is unlike other traditional service dog organizations. In traditional organizations, young puppies are often placed with foster families who teach them basic obedience and ultimately return them to the group for additional training.
PAWS dogs live with Alliance trainers during their early lives or, after receiving enough obedience to be placed with a client family, continue to return to the studio for additional training and sharpening of their skills.
“It’s going to enable us to really customize each placement and each dog,” Bates says.
The group already has trained and placed three dogs, and another four placements are pending. Potential puppies are assessed for their temperament, work ethic, cooperative spirit, adaptability, tolerance, health and a good level of confidence and assuredness.
Bates is raising two golden retrievers that made the cut, Jazzy and Cody Bear, a 6-month-old. Both were sired by a service dog and donated to the program. Although PAWS primarily serves children and teens, Bates hopes to place Cody Bear with a disabled veteran.
That’s a long time in the future, though.
Cody Bear is just beginning his public access work, going to schools and accompanying Bates to the Alliance studio for socialization and training. At night, he has playtime with Jazzy and Morgan, Bates’ own 110-pound Rottweiler.
When the time comes, it will be hard to let Cody Bear go, Bates says.
“But then I see his potential, as well,” she says.
Something to love
PAWS clients Michael and Harriet Stuart made a decision. It was time to find a dog for their autistic son, Aaron.
They knew it wouldn’t be easy. Aaron, 18, didn’t have an interest in dogs or any other animal, for that matter. He ignored previous family dogs, or was irritated by them. Trips to petting zoos fizzled. Horses seemed to intrigue him, but not so much he reached out physically or emotionally to them, and that was the point of the entire endeavor: To discover something Aaron would love.
“We figured maybe, maybe that will awaken something in Aaron,” Michael Stuart says.
Enter Sven, a golden retriever the PAWS program placed with the Stuarts in May. He’s a roly-poly meatball of a dog that, after meeting a new friend, immediately flips onto his back to expose his downy belly. Born in Sweden seven years ago, Sven was a sire for Honor Goldens, a more than 40-year-old service dog organization, until he was retired and joined PAWS; Cody Bear is one his many offspring.
Eventually, even Aaron was powerless to resist Sven’s charms.
“He actually smiles with the dog, which is something he’s never done before,” Michael says.
Aaron has severe expressive disabilities and no conversational speech abilities. He was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, a revelation that Michael remembers as being “like somebody ran you over with a truck.”
After the diagnosis, Michael, who is a schoolteacher, took more than a year off from his job to stay home and work with his son. Everything becomes a process with an autistic child, he says. Everything must be taught.
So, too, it is with Sven. From something as basic as showing Aaron the proper way to pet a dog not too roughly, not in the wrong place to more complicated tasks such as to how to prepare the dog’s food dish, Aaron is learning how to be a caretaker.
He has mastered putting on a dog’s leash and offering a treat, giving Sven clean water and saying a few basic commands, such as “sit.”
Aaron takes Sven for walks with help from Beth Mullin, a behavior therapist from Eden Florida, a Bonita Springs autism support organization.
Recently, when Aaron was by the pool with Sven, Mullin saw him spontaneously reach out for the dog. That’s a new behavior for him.
“We used to have to prompt him or guide him to interact,” Mullin says. “I had never really seen him go for anything for affection.”
A family’s comfort
PAWS client Heidi Falanga wanted a dog that could provide comfort to her autistic son, Mac, and a dog like Bacci is the canine equivalent of chicken noodle soup.
The 5-month-old goldendoodle is covered in deep, brown curls. His tail hangs in a low swirl, much like a monkey’s, and when he walks he almost rolls, slow and drowsy. Everything about Bacci is easygoing and gentle, which made him an ideal match for 11-year-old Mac, who often experiences behavioral issues and needs to be calmed.
Recently, Mac was sitting on the floor and began to cry. Bacci went to him, Falanga recalls, and Mac “went from crying to giggling.”
“It was a great transition,” she says.
Although the dog lives with the Falangas, he is still in the PAWS training program, going three times a week to the Alliance’s East Naples studio for practice.
Falanga praises Bates and PAWS for their willingness to tailor each dog to a client’s needs, and hopes that Bacci’s skills may be honed to help with Mac’s specific challenges.
“They definitely are forming a bond, and this dog will grow with him,” Falanga says.
Forget everything you ever knew about dogs in strollers. Diva and Olivia might look cute and cosseted, but they’re quite willing to earn their rhinestone-studded keep.
When their owner Colleen Kvetko rolled the shih tzus into the assisted-living area of the Carlisle, a North Naples retirement community, Diva and Olivia remained perfectly quiet. They didn’t bark or struggle to escape, but instead sat silently, looking around with their bright, button eyes.
“They’re naturally calm,” Kvetko says, looking down at the two tiny dogs. “Like, ‘We’re going to work.’”
Kvetko’s two dogs are certified therapy dogs, and are one of about 10 owner-and-dog teams that participate in the therapy dog component of PAWS. In addition to senior facilities, the teams visit AVOW Hospice, the Naples hospital and Youth Haven, and participate in Pups n’ Books, a children’s reading program.
Kvetko’s goal is to grow the number of teams to as many as 50, and begin serving area shut-ins, too.
“We see that as a huge opportunity,” she says.
To be certified, a dog completes a 10-week class and a final test. They must display certain abilities, such as being able to remain in a “stay” position for three minutes with their handler in another room.
Diva and Olivia can do that, but the big showstopper for the Carlisle crowd was when the little dogs did a “down” or a “roll,” earning a Cheerio from Kvetko as a treat. And, of course, there was ample admiration for the itty-bitty outfits Kvetko dressed them in black and white for the 4-year-old Diva, and purple and pink for her year-old offspring.
“You’re dressed better than I’m dressed,” resident Norma Jean Anderson says to Olivia. “That’s an elaborate little outfit.”
“Oh, you should see their closet,” Kvetko responds.
Seconds later, Anderson is holding Olivia tightly in her arms. Olivia appeared unsurprised. Nor did Martha Barkauskas, who handles assisted-living activities for the Carlisle. The interaction is emotionally important for the residents, she says, granting them a chance to give affection and feel it in return.
“We stop whatever we’re doing. When the dogs come, we stop,” Barkauskas says.
It’s the same at the Naples hospital when Susan Slider and Ruby, her terrier mix, enter a room. Ruby is certified for pet therapy, but she’s also Collier County’s top agility dog, Slider says. When Ruby gets going, she can turn a hospital room into her own personal Big Top tent show, waving a paw, standing on her back legs and running back and forth on Slider’s command.
“You can tell that it just boosts their morale, brightens their day,” Slider said. “Sometimes when patients see her, they even start to cry.”