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Updated Feb 23, 2014 - 11:50 am

Testers determine dogs' potential for therapy work

PRESCOTT, Ariz. -- Wheelchairs, walkers, strangers, loud noises -- none of the usual distractions seemed to faze Leila.

For nearly an hour on a recent Wednesday morning, local dog-testers Jan Monroe and Shelley Godfrey took the 8-year-old Newfoundland through the paces.

The big black dog reacted with a tail wag when Godfrey approached her from a wheelchair. Later, she barely batted an eye when Godfrey walked noisily toward her with a walker, and then hardly looked up when Monroe ran past her.

It came as no surprise to her owner, Cindy Smith.

``She comes from an active home,'' Smith said, laughing, when Monroe and Godfrey commented on Leila's reaction to the commotion.

Each of the tests was designed to gauge Leila's suitability as a therapy dog. Ease around wheelchairs and walkers is necessary at the nursing homes that the dogs regularly visit, Monroe and Godfrey said, and running is a frequent occurrence on visits to hospitals.

The preliminary test, which took place in a meeting room at a Chino Valley church, also focused on basic dog-handling commands and the dog's tolerance to enthusiastic attention, such as petting and hugging.

By early indications, Leila was a good fit. ``She was the perfect dog,'' Monroe said later.

``I really had no doubt,'' Smith said of Leila's suitability as a therapy dog.

Plenty more testing is still to come, however. Before Leila can be qualified to visit nursing homes or hospitals through the TDInc. program, she will have to undergo extensive test visits.

The entire testing process takes four days, Monroe said. After passing the first round, the dogs take part in three on-site visits -- two to medical facilities, and a third to the Courthouse Plaza.

On this morning, Monroe and Godfrey -- both volunteer tester/observers with TDInc. -- had initial appointments with three owner/dog teams.

First were Annie Oakley, a 5-year-old labradoodle, and her owner Carole Stern-Childs.

At first, Annie flew through the tasks, walking obediently with her owner, and responding enthusiastically to a stranger.

It was only when Monroe brought in her large gray mixed-breed dog Henry Higgins -- the ``neutral dog'' -- that Annie became a bit agitated, pulling on the leash and barking.

Monroe and Godfrey explained that calmness around other dogs is a must with therapy dogs -- in the event they run across one while out on a visit.

Because Annie reacted calmly to all of the other tests, Monroe recommended that Stern-Childs continue working with her around other dogs before taking the next step.

The commitment to helping others through their dogs was apparent among all involved.For Godfrey, the desire to become a TDInc. tester grew from personal exposure, when her grandson Trent was undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

``Back in 2006, my grandson was five years old, and he was in the pediatric oncology ward (in a Las Vegas hospital),'' Godfrey recalls. ``I walked up to his room, and he was there, bald, wearing sunglasses, and with him was a black and white Papillon with sunglasses on,'' Godfrey said. ``They were having so much fun.''

Before she even left the hospital that day, Godfrey had decided to get involved with therapy dogs, she said, noting, ``I absolutely saw what value dogs have.''

She and Monroe said they often see patients -- sometimes with Alzheimer's disease -- respond to dogs when they would respond to nothing else.

The two said there are more requests for therapy dogs in the community than there are dogs available, and they hope to attract more owners and dogs to the program.

The all-volunteer TDInc. program has a one-time $10 registration fee, and a $30 yearly membership fee. Monroe said membership comes with insurance coverage.

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