Canine Therapy During COVID-19: a Virtual Wag, a Window Kiss

Clear the Shelters

Dogs talk together in a Corona time

There is nothing like a big smooch, gentle touch or a wet nose nuzzle with a happy dog.

But social distancing rules, due to the impact of COVID-19, have created a barrier between those in need of canine therapy visits and the special pups that can give them a little TLC.

Recognizing the need for these services doesn’t stop, the Florida-based nonprofit Canine Assisted Therapy has launched a TeleDog program to bring people and therapy dogs face to face, either virtually or through window visits.

“We realized how this was going to impact us,” said Courtney Trzcinski, executive director and CEO of the organization.

About 120 volunteer certified pet therapy teams, consisting of a dog and its human, help children and adults by achieving specific physical, cognitive, social or emotional goals through interaction. The organization impacts about 300,000 people annually from events such as presentations and informational booths, workplace and facility visits and individual engagements.

An otherwise nonverbal senior talks during puppy time, with a paw in hand. A child’s reading skills improve as the dog lays or sits to listen attentively. A stressed individual’s blood pressure lowers as he or she gently pets or strokes the canine.

Trzcinski’s team of staff and volunteers brainstormed for a solution. That’s when a new window of opportunity was realized. To build morale in the workplace, a pup can be the top dog at a business Zoom meeting. A child can read to a dog on FaceTime. During a linkup, a resident at an assisted living facility reaches out for the pup at a window.

Virtual visits take some camera creativity, said volunteer Jahmila Boswell, who, with her 4-year-old Great Dane Dalis, have been making in-person calls to schools and facilities until “it all came to a halting stop.”

“Right now, there are no parades through hospital halls, there’s no Therapy Dog Thursdays,” she said.

But there is technology.

“I have her focus on me but I reverse the camera,” Boswell said, about a virtual session she and Dalis were participating in. “She’ll give a paw and roll over. The client was holding out her hand, smiling and reaching for Dalis’ paw.”

Like many South Floridians, Karen Mizrachi, a mother of three children, the oldest in third grade, is faced with additional at-home school duties. Looking to boost morale, she arranged a virtual reading visit with therapy dog Jessie for her son Sam, who is in first grade.

“Sam already knew Jessie from the therapy dog’s weekly visits to his kindergarten class last year,” Mizrachi said.

Holly Rosenberg, engagement director at YourLife of Coconut Creek Memory Care, said the residents, viewing a large-screen television, responded to the Zoom connection to canine therapy dogs.

“It worked well for us. The dogs did tricks – one even balanced a biscuit on his nose,” she said.

As for the learning curve to master a variety of social media platforms, “it’s getting easier,” Rosenberg said. “We’ve certainly been doing a lot of that lately so our residents can connect with their loved ones.”

Window visits are a thing too.

Boswell and Dalis made a recent facility visit in which the dog made eye contact through the front glass doors with residents inside.

“You cannot underestimate the value of this service,” said Boswell, who works as a counselor. “Dogs help you.”

The dog-human therapy teams also thrive on the engagement.

While there is certainly a future for virtual and window visits, Boswell said her dog sits by the door ready to go into action with the next client – and Boswell also misses the person-to-person interaction.

“Personally, I get so much joy, it’s indescribable,” she said.

Visit catdogs.org to learn more about Canine Assisted Therapy, its services and how to request a visit.


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COMMON ITEMS YOU CAN DONATE


  • Towels and blankets - Shelters are often cold and animals like to have a blanket to curl up on. Towels are a big help to dry animals off after being bathed or if they come in wet. Towels can also be used to line the bottoms of cages. The towels or blankets don't have to be brand new or in perfect condition. The animals won't mind, as long as they're usable.
  • Canned and Dry Food for Cats and Dogs-Healthy - Healthy pet options for nourishment
  • Kitty litter and cat boxes - Cats go to the bathroom- a lot. Shelters are constantly using bag after bag of litter. Their supply runs out fast.
  • Puppy or kitten formula and nursing bottles - Sometimes there are situations where a young puppy or kitten who is not weaned gets separated from their mother. In these situations they need puppy or kitten formula to survive.
  • Old newspaper - When you're done with your newspapers you usually just throw them away or recycle them, right? You could help animals at no cost to you if you just save up your old newspapers. Newspapers are used in the bottoms of cages. They get soiled quickly, so they're in constant demand.
  • Collars, harnesses, and leashes - Dogs who are taken out on walks need a leash and collar or harness. The shelter loses some because adopted dogs often go home with their leash or harness.
  • Grooming supplies - Grooming supplies can include shampoo, brushes, combs, haircutting scissors, etc. Dogs and cats often come in dirty or end up getting dirty. Grooming supplies can keep them fresh, clean, and adoptable.
  • Toys - You would get bored if you had to lay in a crate alone all day, wouldn't you? Animals in shelters get bored, too. It keeps the animals from being so lonely and bored and allows them to get exercise. You could go out and buy new toys, or you could donate toys your pets or children may have not gotten much use out of. It's as simple as that.
  • Crates and carriers - Animals need to be transported somehow, and the cost of multiple crates and carriers can add up quickly. You can donate ones you stopped using that are still in good condition or you could go buy one for a decent price. This helps the shelter tremendously.
  • Paper towels and cleaning supplies - There are a lot of situations that get messy, so paper towels are a big help.
  • Hand wash and hand sanitizer - People who work at shelters need to keep their hands clean for their and the animals' health.
  • Laundry detergent, fabric softener, and bleach - Towels and blankets get soiled often so the washing machines are being used a lot
  • Dog and cat beds - this can offer the animals a soft place to lay instead of a kennel or cage floor.
  • Heating pads - Many animals come in cold or are young and need warmth. Heating pads can replace a mother's warmth.
  • Copy paper and pens, pencils, post-it notes and staples - You can't forget about all the paperwork that has to be done. Donating these items makes it so the shelter doesn't have to buy them on their own.
  • Garbage bags, mops, brooms, and sponges - The shelter uses these every day and clean up supplies can get expensive.
  • Food bowls - As new animals come in, the shelter needs new places to put food. Having an adequate supply could mean life or death for an animal in a shelter.
  • Rubber and latex gloves - A lot of messy stuff happens and gloves are necessary to lessen the spread of germs.
  • Plastic shopping bags - Plastic bags can be used to clean up dog mess and to store things in.

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