Animal Control supervisor becomes tester for Alliance of Therapy Dogs
Summit County may soon have some more furry friends to help spread joy and knowledge around the county, thanks to the growing presence of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs in the area.
Last month, Summit County Animal Control Field Supervisor Jesslyn “JJ” Swirka became the newest tester and observer for the group, an international registry of certified therapy dog teams that volunteer in animal-assisted activities like visits to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and more.
With another tester in the county, the alliance will be able to take on more teams to meet a growing need in the area.
“I have been a member of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs since 2016,” Swirka said. “I’ve had two of my own personal dogs taken through their program and passed as therapy dogs, and we use them in our schools for our Humane Education Program. But for the last several years as we get busier with calls, we’re not always able to have a dog for all our programs.
“We had some volunteers who adopted dogs that were really appropriate for this, and I was encouraged to become another tester-observer to speed up that process. Now they can get their dogs tested sooner, and they’re available quicker to become part of the programs and services in the county.”
Becoming a tester/observer with the alliance requires an in-depth screening process that includes interviews, letters of reference and even passing a written test with scenario-based questions to prove you’re up to the task.
But now that Swirka has passed, she’ll be able to evaluate and add new, local dog teams to the alliance, a process that requires a background check, a yearly physical for the dog and a number of private and on-locations tests to assure the dog and handler work well together, and that the dog is able to properly handle new locations and people.
“There’s certain requirements the animal has to meet,” Swirka said. “How do they interact with new people and environments? Was the dog stressed? And how do they interact around other dogs, or around people on crutches or in wheelchairs? We test all of that. … It’s not so much testing if the dog is able to sit and stay, but more about if they’re appropriate to be used as a therapy dog for people to be able to touch them and pet them, and go into unfamiliar places and act appropriately.”
If a local team passes the testing, they’ll be able to join the alliance and begin assisting in programs around the county, including visiting patients at the hospital or adult day care centers. Perhaps the most notable dog-assisted initiative in Summit County is the Humane Education Program run through the animal shelter.
The program offers a nine-week curriculum of one-hour sessions for every elementary school in the county, and teaches kids about how to care for and safely approach animals.
“I think the biggest impact could be on the Humane Education Program that animal control and the shelter is a part of,” Swirka said. “We use these dogs to display body language and to help connect the students with how to appropriately greet animals, or what to do when there’s a stray animal. They get a really great hands-on evaluation of that when there’s a real dog at the school.”
Swirka also noted that the program helps to build community trust, and creates a good association between kids and people in uniform.
“It’s helpful for people like me as an officer in creating constructive interactions with kids while in uniform,” said Swirka. “The animal helps to break that barrier. Most kids are going to be interested in wanting to meet the dog, but I’m at the end of the leash so it helps to create that positivity with someone in uniform, and helps them understand how we serve the community.”
Swirka noted that the Alliance of Therapy Dogs is always looking for additional volunteers to assist in their programs. Interested parties should have a dog that’s at least 1 year old with current vaccinations, and who has a calm and gentle disposition. Individuals interested in becoming part of the alliance should visit the organizations website at TherapyDogs.com, or reach out to Swirka at (970) 668-4192.
“Our programs are always growing, and if people want to serve their community we’re always looking for volunteers for the therapy dog program,” Swirka said.
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