By Lisa Kava
In late April, preschool children at the Twin Parks Montessori Schools on the Upper West Side, were greeted by special guest visitors in their classrooms. Dog therapy teams (therapy dogs and their human handlers) from New York Therapy Animals, came to class to say hello, to teach the children about dogs, and to tell the children about the important jobs that some dogs have.
New York Therapy Animals is a nonprofit organization that trains and registers therapy dog teams. Volunteers take a seven- week class with their dogs, then become an official therapy team. The teams visit students in schools, patients in hospitals, and seniors in assisted living facilities.
The Twin Parks Montessori Schools are located on three campuses; 91st and Central Park West, 103rd and Central Park West, and 93rd Street and Riverside Drive. “We are called Twin Parks because each of our campuses is across from Central Park or Riverside Park,” Executive Director Susan Kambrich told West Side Rag. The therapy dog teams visited children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old.
For some of the children, the visits were an introduction to dogs in general. “They learned how to pet a dog and to always ask the dog’s owner if they can touch the dog. They learned that there are different breeds of dogs,” Kambrich said. “They learned that some dogs, like these have jobs and that they can work in schools or hospitals.”
Twin Parks teacher, Kim Goldsmith, who is part of a therapy team with her dog, Winnie, was inspired to bring therapy teams to her school because of her own experience volunteering. She and Winnie often visit students in local colleges.
“Winnie is a big support to students while they are starting their semester at school. The students are frequently missing their own pets and the therapy dogs are a big stress reliever while they prepare for their finals,” Goldsmith said. “There’s nothing like a dog who comes up to you with a big smile, who gives lots of licks and requests belly rubs and scratches behind the ears.”
Goldsmith felt certain that therapy dog visits would be fun and educational for the children at Twin Parks. During the visits, handlers taught the children that they must ask two important questions, Goldsmith explained. “Is your dog friendly?” and “May I pet your dog?” For children who were timid or unsure, the handlers brought a small dog brush so that brushing the dogs was an option.
Spending time with Luna, a calm, large-breed dog helped a few of the children overcome their fears, Goldsmith noticed. “I was always scared of big dogs and now I love them,” one remarked after petting Luna.
Meeting therapy dogs was not new to the children at Twin Parks. Goldsmith had arranged virtual visits during the pandemic. But the recent in-person visits were more impactful, as the children were able to pet and interact with the dogs. Kambrich said the visits were such a success that she plans to schedule more in the future.
Nancy George-Michalson, the Executive Director of New York Therapy Animals is also a volunteer for the organization. George-Michalson and her dog Melodie participated in the Twin Parks visits. “I talked to the children about Melodie and what she likes to do for fun. I told them that dogs need to be good listeners,” George-MIchalson told the Rag. “I talked about how therapy dogs help people relax.”
The therapy teams who visited Twin Parks are experienced volunteering with children. They are part of a program called R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs.) In this program, children who might be struggling with reading read to a dog (who doesn’t judge) in a calm setting without any pressure. The mission of the R.E.A.D. program is to “improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of registered therapy dog teams as mentors,” according to the website. The R.E.A. D. program partners with the NYC Department of Education.
New York Therapy Animals always welcomes new volunteers. If you think you and your dog might make a great therapy team and would like to learn more click here.