Alicia Harantschuk found solace in therapy dogs after suffering a tragic death in the family. She now shares the healing powers of dogs with patients, schoolkids, and university students.
When Alicia Harantschuk lost her father to Alzheimer’s disease, she was ready to leave her tears behind, and find a positive focus for her grief and healing. For days, she thought about how she could find her purpose, then suddenly, she knew in a flash: pet therapy!
Her father loved animals — indeed, their whole family did. Alicia and her husband Gene agreed that they’d be proud to honor her dad’s memory through their love of dogs. Only one problem, Alicia told us, “The tears dried up and I quickly realized, we didn’t have a dog!” And so began the couple’s next big adventure…
Enter Olivia the dachshund and Vegas the pitbull — both certified with Comfort Caring Canines (CCC) in 2013. After serving on the Board for years, Alicia’s now CCC’s president, and also a member of their evaluation team. Of course, she and her current therapy dog pack keep a busy schedule, spreading love and calm wherever they’re needed.
Alicia’s seen some dramatic changes: “The healing is not just the physical healing of that patient,” Alicia explained, “Maybe it’s the ability to have a meaningful conversation with a loved one, or be calmer and more easygoing interacting with nurses and staff.” When a patient makes a loving connection with a therapy dog, their whole attitude can change.
Although most therapy dog visits are all about bonding, when Alicia makes the rounds she’s got a secret weapon no patient can resist: dog tricks! “I wanted patients to forget their aches and pains even if only for a few minutes,” she said, “So I started teaching tricks to my dogs, putting on little shows.” One day as she was tidying up her props, she turned around to see a considerable crowd gathered.
Turns out, many of these folks actually planned their visits with loved ones around Alicia’s visits because it gave them all something pleasant to talk about. “Some told us it is the happiest they’ve seen their loved one in a long time,” she said, and rushed to her car where the emotions overwhelmed her, “It just hit me, we ARE making a difference!”
Not all pet therapy visits involve patients though. CCC participates in school reading programs, where students practice aloud reading to dogs, who offer a receptive, non-judgmental audience. “Relaxed kids can learn faster,” she said, “and it’s a special treat so they tend to work harder for the dogs, too.”
For older kids, CCC’s therapy dogs help out at colleges during exams! “Universities will have dogs come in to give students a much-needed mental break.” Often, the transformation from “let’s-get-this-over-with” to “OMG-this-is-awesome” is immediate. They smile and engage with gusto, and often don’t want the dogs to go. “After a visit, students feel energized, and in a much better mind-set for their next final or study session.”
Therapy dogs have also been shown to help people of all ages come to term with loss, grief, and even trauma. The special bond between a dog and a human is purely intuitive, often reaching places words can’t ever go. And some animals just seem to have a gift of reading people.
Today, over 1,000 organizations promote animal-assisted therapy — including CCC, which visits VNA’s hospice at the Falls Center. CCC also takes requests directly from their website and social media. And they’re always looking for local volunteers…
Make a Difference With Your Dog!
Thinking your pup might have the makings of a therapy dog? Leigh Siegfried and her Opportunity Barks team are a great local resource (on Scotts Lane) to get started. She’s been working with Alicia and “it’s been great. I love having an established group that we can guide clients to participate with, if they are drawn to therapy work.”
OpBarks offers a series of classes (or one-on-one programs), that can not only help evaluate if you’ve got a good therapy dog candidate but prepare them for testing if they are!
Testing for CCC typically involves a series of exercises that assess a dog’s ability to hold positions (like sitting or down), ignore distractions and be able to focus on the owner as well as having excellent impulse control. OpBarks can help, with classes that take a new pup or dog from the fundamentals of training to advanced levels of manners.
In the time she’s been prepping therapy candidates, Leigh’s had some memorable students – “we once prepped a three-legged dog for his therapy dog certification and he ended up volunteering with amputees. He had a great temperament for the work and it’s always a heart warmer when you see a dog happy in their work, making a difference for people.”
Mark Your Calendar
3510 Scott’s Lane
(next to East Falls Glass Works)
Get Involved! Volunteering at VNA Hospice of Philadelphia takes as little as 1-2 hours once per week but makes such a difference to the patients and their families. Opportunities include office support, Inpatient Unit visits, home visits, and special events. Call 215-581-2360 with questions or to start the application process (includes Background Check, Child Abuse History Clearance, TB testing, and comprehensive training which VNA pays for.)