Angel on a Leash, David Frei Talks About What Therapy Dogs Can Do

Angel on a Leash, David Frei Talks About What Therapy Dogs Can Do

By Steve Dale

David Frei may be best known for popularizing dog shows. Before his voice accompanied dog shows, few paid attention. Now, millions watch the National Dog Show each Thanksgiving Day; and in February Frei will be the voice of the Westminster Dog Show. Still, as much as Frei loves the world of dog shows, he's even more enthralled about the world of showing what dogs can do.

In 2007, Frei founded an animal-assisted therapy group called Angel on A Leash. Through the program, Delta Society Certified therapy dogs visit a variety of renowned health care facilities around the country, including the Ronald McDonald Houses of New York City and Memphis; Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, New York; Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; St. Jude's Children's Hospital, Memphis; and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York.

The dogs help people feel better, and in many instances work with professional occupational and physical therapists to help people actually get better.

There are two general types of therapy programs that use pets.

Animal-assisted activities which have dogs, or petting programs with dogs (and sometimes cats) who visit a facility -- and are pretty much just there to be petted.

"That's not insignificant," says Frei, author of "Angel on a Leash: Therapy Dogs and the Lives They Touch" (BowTie Inc., Irvine, CA, 2011, $16.95), who offers examples of scientific studies which have demonstrated how simply petting a dog or a cat is healthful, stimulating hormones that promote healing.

Taking things a step further are formal animal-assisted therapy programs overseen by medical professionals. These programs provide goal-directed therapy.

For example, a stroke victim may be asked to brush a dog or toss a tennis ball using an affected arm. The patient may not view such activity as therapy, and the dog is simply being a dog, but it is very much genuine therapy. "Except that because it doesn't seem like therapy, and because dogs are the therapists, it sometimes works faster and better than traditional therapy," Frei says.

Frei met Cherilyn (now his wife) when she was working on a masters degree in theology and writing a thesis on dog-assisted therapy. Frei gave it a try himself, visiting an extended care facility in Seattle with a Brittany named Belle.

"We were told this one guy (the patient) wouldn't respond much; he was a very unhappy person," Frei recalls. "And I thought, 'Oh, great, our first visit, and it's not going to go well.'"

The old man didn't pay any attention to Frei as he walked in, but then he saw Belle. "Well, instantly, he lit up," says Frei. "He talked only to the dog, 'Come here you knucklehead,' he said and used that excited voice we all use to call dogs. The administrator couldn't believe what he was seeing. Belle even jumped into the man's lap, which was against the rules, and something she was trained not to do. But at that moment, it was the best thing. Whatever was going on between them was amazing. In a split second, this totally non-responsive old man sprung to life."

Frei adds, "As we began to leave, the man said, 'Son, when I die, would you take care of this dog?' What a moment that was," recalls Frei. "He apparently thought this was his dog. It was so sweet."

When Frei first began visiting facilities on his own several years ago, many administrators were dubious about the value of canine visitors. Since then, science has demonstrated the undeniable value of animal-assisted therapy. Many dogs in programs around the country have succeeded in changing and even saving lives.

Of course, not all dogs are suited for this sort of work. It's also a trick to match the right dog with the right program for that individual pet.

Frei calls he and Cherilyn's Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, named  Angel, "my little princess." Every Monday night, the little dog visits Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's Women's Health Center to see patients recovering from or facing surgery. "She's very soft and gentle, and very happy to be petted and talked to," Frei says.

Meanwhile, the couple's Brittany is a regular at the Ronald McDonald House in New York City, where the dog is surrounded by children, all wanting to play. "Our dog just says, 'Bring it on,'" Frei comments. "It's the right program for her."

The stories in Frei's book, he says, pretty much explain why he was so motivated to create Angel on a Leash. "I know it sounds kind of corny, but when over and over again you witness these miracles, and see what these angels can do -- it's very compelling. Anyone who does animal-assisted therapy can tell you the same thing."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   ©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services

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