Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly feeding on Miss Huff lantana flowers in our yard


Previous       2020 Journal Topics       Home       Next



"Researchers and experts agree that pets excel as therapeutic agents and that dogs are an   
antidote to depression. Studies have shown a decrease in both blood pressure and
 stress levels during therapy dog visits. A visit from one of our therapy dog teams
can break the daily routine, increase overall emotional well-being,
and stimulate the mind in dramatic ways . . ."
~ Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) webpage for facilities
Even though Don was released from Southeastern Guide Dogs' guide and service dog program when he was ten months old, he still honors his namesake by giving comfort and joy to everyone who shares his life, both as our family pet and as a certified therapy dog. He's only just begun!

Don LOVES people and he doesn't discriminate -- any age, sex, race, or system of beliefs. He is intuitive enough to know who wants to say hi and who isn't in the mood. He gives kisses freely to anyone who wants/needs them and brings smiles to so many people on our walks and when we're working as a pet therapy team.

Don's love of people was obvious to us as soon as we met him at three months of age. He was five months old in this photo during one of our puppy training outings to the Kennesaw University library. He was giving some kisses to Teri, our current SEGD volunteer area coordinator:

As a guide puppy in training Don was allowed to greet people when in his guide coat, up until about the time he was released. But I was weaning him off people greetings in anticipation of the time when he was no longer supposed to do that. (Out of coat, greetings were still permissable.)

Guide and service dogs, no matter how friendly their temperament, must learn to focus solely on their handler while they are working. Before Don's release I wondered if he'd ever master that skill in advanced training.

Once career-changed, Don quite naturally slid into the role of social butterfly. I knew as soon as he was released what his new career would be -- certified therapy dog! He's a natural.

This entry is an update of Don's activities since I last wrote about him on April 30. I'll include a variety of photos from May to December as I describe the process of certifying him for pet therapy, and add even more photos on a second page.


Back in the 1980s and '90s I had two other Labs that were certified with a different pet therapy organization. I took them to a nursing home in another part of metro Atlanta where I lived at the time. They were typical lovable Labs but nowhere near as calm, well-trained, intuitive, and smart as Don, who is still relatively young for this type of work.

There is more than one national therapy dog certification organization. This time I chose Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) because several of my local and internet friends belong to that organization and it is a well-respected non-profit group.

Any well-mannered, healthy breed of dog with the right temperament can become a certified therapy dog. I've seen photos of therapy dogs ranging in size from tiny Yorkies to huge St. Bernards. Because Labrador and Golden retrievers are so popular with Americans and also so people-oriented, they are probably the most common breeds for pet therapy.

The minimum age for testing, observing, and certifying is one year old. After Don turned one in early June I began the paperwork process, passed the background check ATD uses, and chose a local tester/observer (T/O) named Cindy.

Cindy was cordial but hesitant to test Don when he was only twelve months old. She's been testing for ATD for twenty years and knows that Labs tend to mature late. She'd never previously tested a Lab as young as Don.

So I gave her my best advocacy spiel and explained Don's training as a guide puppy, his perfect manners, and his reserved temperament even when he was a very young puppy.

This is Don's default setting, even when quite young!  (5-3-20, age 11 mos.)

Cindy finally agreed to meet us on July 21 at a feed store near her home for his test and first observation.

I knew Don would do well with the obedience testing but was afraid he might be totally distracted by the bags of dog food. Although he's familiar with home and garden stores, taking him into pet shops like Petsmart was still a challenge last summer.

Cindy assured me she was more interested with how Don followed commands and interacted with people than whether he was distracted by dog food scents. OK then, we can do this!

I use treats in pet stores to help Don focus on me and not all the dog food. 
Here I'm wearing a mask that matches his bow tie.  (7-12-20, age 13 mos.)

Prior to the COVID pandemic ATD required that two of the three observations be held in medical setting like a hospital or nursing home. During the pandemic, however, they've had to relax that standard since visitors haven't been able to go into most of the traditional settings for pet therapy.

In 2020 testers have been able to use home and garden stores or outdoors shopping areas, as long as  potential therapy dogs' interactions with people can be observed.

Posing with pumpkins at Pike Nursery (age 16 mos.)

At thirteen months of age Don passed his testing in the feed store parking lot that day quite easily. It was basically a Canine Good Citizen test, although ATD doesn't require that certificate.

Then we went inside the store for his first observation with people. It was impossible to completely avoid the aisles of pet food but Don wasn't as distracted by the tantalizing scents as I thought he'd be. More importantly, Cindy was impressed with his obedience and perfect manners with her, the store employees, and a few customers.

I was so proud of Don! We were halfway to getting him certified. He just needed two more observations and I knew he'd do well at those because they would be at large home stores, the type of setting he's very familiar with.

The second observation with Cindy was at Lowe's the next week:

(L-R) Sue, Don, Cindy at Lowe's in July for second observation  (age 13 mos.)

Then Cindy went out of town for several weeks and the final observation at Home Depot wasn't until the end of August. Don passed all of his observations easily. Cindy was impressed because he was still only 14 months old.

About a week later we received Don's ATD certificate, membership card, therapy dog tag, and a quarterly magazine in the mail. We were officially a therapy dog team!

Linda, one of my Southeastern Guide Dog friends who lives in Florida, has two Labs she raised for the school. When they were released, she adopted them and has both certified for pet therapy. She has been a great mentor to me, one of several women with therapy dogs who have been very helpful.

She designed this handsome business card for Don and I had a bunch of them printed up by Shutterfly to pass out to individuals and facilities:

However, we're still sort of all dressed up with nowhere (traditional) to go . . .

Because of the COVID pandemic, at the end of 2020 we still can't visit inside hospitals, nursing and assisted living homes, hospice facilities, schools, libraries, or most of the other places where pet therapy is usually done.

This year pet therapy teams around the country have employed some new and creative ways of reaching clients through Zoom calls, FaceTime, PetsTogether online visits, "window" visits outside nursing homes, staff visits outside hospitals, sending cards from the therapy dogs to former clients like hospice patients, and other safe methods.

I considered making greeting cards for sick and elderly people who couldn't have visitors or go out to run errands. I took some photos of Don dressed in various costumes and clothes but never did actually design cards to send anyone. The main reason was not having a client base already.

Lumberjack Don, posing with a hatchet instead of an ax; Don does NOT like hats! (age 16 mos.)

He tolerated the lion's mane for a relatively long photo session  (age 15 mos.)

Above and below:  Don seems to like wearing shirts and bandanas;
these were two of the Walkathon fundraising awards we earned. (age 13 mos.)

I had high hopes when I met a young woman in our neighborhood while out walking Don one day in the fall. She loved meeting him. When I said he's a lovable therapy dog without the normal places to visit people during the pandemic, she encouraged me to take him to a nearby independent living complex to see her grandmother and other residents.

I contacted them and took Don's business card and vet information to the manager. They'd never utilized pet therapy with their 65+ age group of residents but agreed to set up a date and time for an outside visit under the gazebo. (I don't have any photos from that visit.)

Must touch Mom whenever possible . . . photo shoot in our
back yard Oct. 4 on Don's 16-month birthday.

Fortunately, it was on a warm late autumn day so it was pleasant outside. Unfortunately, so few staff and residents came down to see us that I was disappointed. Another friend was there with her therapy Lab, too. Both dogs acted appropriately but since the reception was lackluster, and they don't want dogs inside the building even after the pandemic is over, I don't know if we'll go back again. 

Don and I have had a much more enthusiastic reception at our local Home Depot store and I can take him inside there. We go at least weekly to give puppy love to interested associates and customers who are complying with CDC guidelines to wear masks.

Above and below:  Home Depot in the fall (age 15 months)

Don loves going to Home Depot, getting all wiggly when I tell him where we're going. He's eager to get out of the car as soon as we reach the parking lot. This store has been one of our main go-to destinations for people greetings since Don was fully vaccinated at 16 weeks old.

We make a grand circuit of the garden center and store, hitting the areas where employees usually want to see Don. Others who aren't tied to one spot sometimes hunt for us when word gets out that Don is in the store. Nobody knows my name but they know Don's!

A couple of the young female associates have even gotten down on the floor to cuddle with him!

Two of Don's favorite associates at Home Depot (8-26-20, age 14 mos.)

If I go into a store where I've often taken Don but don't have him with me, it's common for employees to ask where he is. I love that he has such a positive effect on people!

Businesses in our area are relatively pet-friendly. Even though I can't take him into some stores where he had access as a therapy dog in training, like Target and Sam's Club, he's still allowed in other places where we sometimes go -- Home Goods, TJ Maxx, BedBath&Beyond, Ross, At Home, nurseries and plant stores, pet and feed stores, etc.

But our local Home Depot remains our favorite place to go visit people and I can't resist photographing this handsome boy with the ever-changing seasonal merchandise and displays:

This winter I have done all the steps necessary to get Don and me approved as a large hospice organization's first pet therapy team -- application, background check, online coursework. Orientation will occur in January, 2021.

This group has a small in-patient facility at its main headquarters but it serves patients in nursing homes, assisted living and veterans' facilities, and in their own homes across the entire metro Atlanta area. I'm especially interested in visiting veterans. This is an easier way to get my foot in the door than trying to qualify through the cumbersome Veteran's Administration procedures.

Hopefully by spring, 2021, when most patients, caregivers, medical workers, and hospice volunteers have been vaccinated again COVID-19, Don and I will be able to start visiting hospice patients, caregivers, and staff.

Everyone can use some puppy love in these trying times!

Continued on the next page -- lots more puppy pictures of Don from 2020

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Casey-Girl, Holly-Holly, & Dapper Don

Previous       Next

2020 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil