Nature Coast Therapy Dogs

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Nature Coast Therapy Dogs

September 19, 2017 - 08:44
Ruby is greeted by Nature Coast Therapy Dogs Lincoln and Turbo with volunteers DJ and Rita. Photo by Cheryl Clanton
Photography by CHERYL CLANTON:

They say dogs are a man’s best friend. This might actually be true. Studies have shown that pets, especially dogs, can increase the happiness and well-being of the people they spend time with. This is why pet therapy has become an increasingly popular form of rehabilitation. Hernando County has an amazing volunteer organization called Nature Coast Therapy Dogs. They strive to bring happiness to those who are in nursing homes or hospitals, and so much more. Therapy dogs and their owners work together as a team to improve the lives of other people. They volunteer at schools, hospitals, and nursing homes, work with children who are learning to read, visit seniors in assisted living facilities, etc. They are not service dogs. Service dogs are specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability, such as guiding an owner who is blind, or assisting someone with a physical disability.

Nature Coast Therapy Dogs holds weekly training classes. The Hernando County Parks and Recreation Department gives them use of the Lake House facility to conduct their training. The program was started in Citrus County back in 2011 by Joann G. Peters. Eventually, they expanded to Hernando County under the leadership of DJ Gwilt. By day, DJ runs Well Mannered K9, where she teaches basic obedience classes, so it was only natural for her to make the step into training dogs for therapy as well.

Currently, Nature Coast Therapy Dogs is working in the stroke clinic of a local hospital. They also visit day care centers, funeral homes, and offer classes for basic obedience, as well as participate in Courtroom Dogs for Kids, a special program that helps children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. The dogs go to therapy sessions with the children, and if necessary, even go to court with them. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice also brings some of the Nature Coast Therapy Dogs to youth who’ve found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and are working hard to pull their lives together.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending one of their training sessions. The Key Training Center from Citrus County, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving adults with developmental disabilities, also joined us. We had the pleasure of meeting 7 therapy dogs- Lincoln, Turbo, Shelby, Scooter, Stacey, Daisy, and River who vary in size from 4 to 104 pounds. The dogs are trained on a number of commands and behaviors. First, they demonstrated how the dogs are familiarized with wheelchairs and learn how to walk next to the chair and not get nervous, jump up on the person or get in the way of movement. Next, they trained with walkers. The hardest part about training with walkers is that the dogs naturally want to play with the tennis balls at the bottom of the walkers. These special dogs have to get used to both gentle and rough play. With wheelchairs and walkers, sometimes a dog’s tail may get stepped on or they are stepped over or accidentally kicked. The dogs learn how to stay calm and not react or become aggressive when these accidents happen. The therapy dogs also demonstrated some of the commands they have learned, such as ‘Sit,’ ‘Shake,’ ‘Place,’ ‘Finish’ and ‘Leave It,’ which was most impressive. With ‘Leave it,’ the dogs walked right by food that had “accidentally fallen” on the floor. As they started to sniff it, their trainer said “Leave it!” and the dog would walk away. Some dogs even walked right by it, never even stopping because they knew they are not allowed to.

With Nature Coast Therapy Dogs, the training process takes about 3 months. It consists of 12 classes and 2 tests. All volunteers use their own dog and carry insurance in case there are any injuries. This great organization needs your support. They need more volunteers as well as people who can spread the word about this unique and beautiful form of therapy. If you’d like to get involved with Nature Coast Therapy Dogs, please contact them at 352-503-7175 or