South Miami

Training Saturday in South Miami for would-be therapy dogs

For the last year, David Moss, 66, and his 3-year old German shepherd Barney have gone every Wednesday to visit the residents at South Dade Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

“Barney’s laid back,” said Moss, a social studies teacher at Southwest Senior High School. “He’s wonderful with the people.”

Barney is a therapy dog registered with Therapy Dogs International, a nonprofit organization that regulates, tests and evaluates therapy dogs and their owners. They look for well-trained dogs with good temperament to visit hospitals, schools, mental health facilities, universities and any other place where people need comfort.

On June 28, dog owners in Miami will get a chance to join Barney and other therapy dogs and their owners. TDI will host a test to give canine companions a chance to become certified therapy dogs and handlers.

The test will be held at Applause Your Paws, a dog training facility in South Miami. In the past, Applause Your Paws held tests at a nearby park. This is the first time the testing will be done in its own facility.

Amaris Hess, a mental health counselor and certified TDI evaluator, will proctor the test.

“It’s the first time I will have complete control of my environment, so I’m excited,” said Hess, 30.

Hess has been an evaluator since 2011 but began her experience with TDI in 2009 as a handler and has taken her beagle mix Rascal to many places.

“My experience has been really great,” said Hess. “I’ve gone to a bunch of different facilities, hospitals, summer camps, schools, and every visit is so different.”

Hess said dogs must pass a regular obedience test, which includes commands such as sit, stay and lie down. Hess then evaluates the dogs’ temperaments. They are tested on how they react to strangers, strange environments and other factors.

“Can I pet the dog? Is this a pleasant experience for them?” said Hess.

But the most important factor, she said, is the bond between the owner and the therapy dog.

“They are ambassadors for TDI and therapy dogs as a whole. A good bond makes a difference in the quality of the visits.”

Applause Your Paws offers classes to prepare dogs and owners for the test, but they aren’t a requirement for registration.

“They don’t have to take our classes,” said Joanne Onsitgo, operations manager of Applause Your Paws. “If they feel like their dog is ready to take the test then they can definitely take the test and if they pass, great, and if they need a refresher we can give them the refresher.”

Onsitgo said there is space for 12 dogs and four already had been registered as of Monday. Those who wish to take the test must call Applause Your Paws. There is a $10 testing fee per dog.

After dogs pass the test, TDI requires proof of an annual check-up by a veterinarian, mandatory rabies vaccine, an initial series of core distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus vaccinations, a negative fecal exam and a negative heartworm test, all done within the last year.

The test is rigorous, but for Moss and Barney, the smile of the residents at the nursing home makes the process worthwhile.

“I try to give back to the community,” said Moss. “It’s a good feeling.”