Pet Tales: Therapy dogs a class act at Franklin Regional High School




It must have been difficult for students the first time they had to re-enter Franklin Regional High School after one of their classmates stabbed 21 students and a security guard. Kudos to school officials who had the wisdom and compassion to recruit certified therapy dogs to greet students and staff Tuesday and Wednesday.

The dogs were there to help in the only way that dogs know: They wagged their tails as they nuzzled hands, licked faces and leaned up against students in that universal dog signal that says, "Please pet me."

An 11-year-old border collie named Piper was one of 10 dogs on the first shift, 6:30-9 a.m. Tuesday. Five dogs, including Piper, were in the place where the attacks took place April 9. A young girl accompanied by her mother began to cry as she entered the hallway.

"Piper pulled his leash out of my hand and went to her," said owner-handler Jan. K. Mayr of Hannastown, Westmoreland County. "Piper leaned hard against her, nuzzling her hand. I quietly walked over and picked up his leash. The girl began to pet him, and she stopped crying. Piper and I walked with her down the hallway, Piper nuzzling and licking her hand as they walked. He even coaxed a smile from her."

The student gave a parting pat to Piper and moved on to meet another dog.

Approximately 35 handlers and 41 dogs answered the call for volunteers, said Mary Catherine Reljac, assistant superintendent and public relations director. Many more handlers were eager to help, but had to be turned away. Professional counselors and student ambassadors were also on hand to help.

"The student ambassadors felt that the presence of the therapy dog teams was so beneficial, they asked to include the dogs for the entire week," Ms. Reljac said. "One school counselor reported that a student shared his fear of returning to the school building but willed himself to come because he wanted to have an experience with the therapy dogs."

Many breeds of dogs were represented at the school, from a little Cairn terrier to a big Rottweiler. Many of them train at the Westmoreland County Obedience Club. All have passed tough tests to get certification from Therapy Dogs International or Therapy Dogs Inc.

All of those dogs are special, but Piper is extraordinary. He's been a therapy dog for more than eight years. He has 100 performance titles from canine competitions including obedience, agility, rally and herding. He's also a champion in "canine freestyle," in which Piper and Ms. Mayr do intricately choreographed dances to music. Their dancing is a big hit when they visit nursing homes.

Ms. Mayr has been a professional dog trainer for 24 years and is the owner-operator of Applegarth Custom Dog Training Services in Latrobe.

I believe therapy work is a calling; I don't think there's any way to actually train a dog to comfort people who are in physical or emotional pain. The dogs usually visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Some go to elementary schools with their handlers to teach children how to safely and happily interact with dogs or to libraries where they sit quietly while children read to them. They're not trained to deal with mass tragedies, and neither are their handlers.

Despite all of his training and titles, Piper yanked his leash out of Ms. Mayr's hand on Tuesday. She thinks he decided to act on his own to go to a girl who needed him.

"Piper is very smart and very intuitive," she said. "Also, he doesn't like to see anyone cry."

Ms. Mayr actually does have trauma experience. She works as an emergency medical technician with the Mutual Aid Ambulance Service. The stabbings didn't happen on her shift, but some of her co-workers responded to the scene April 9. Trauma physicians at hospitals where students were treated said first responders saved the lives of students who might have bled to death at the school.

Experienced therapy dogs enjoy their volunteer gigs, but it's physically and emotionally exhausting. That's why dogs "work" short shifts -- usually no more than two or three hours.

After interacting with Franklin Regional students, Piper "turned toward me and gave a whole body shake, which he does to clear himself," Ms. Mayr said. "He mostly does this with people who are crying or are very sad."

Ms. Mayr has three other border collies named Cellidh, Seeker and Gem. They, too, are therapy dogs with many titles, but Piper seems to a cut above.

"I could not be more proud of Piper and his ability to read people and situations and behave accordingly," she said. " I love this dog to the moon and back."

Therapy dogs provided comfort after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. They volunteered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and after the Oklahoma City federal building bombing in 1995.

When the Twin Towers fell after a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, no call went out for therapy dogs. Dogs needed in Lower Manhattan were highly trained to rescue the living and search for the dead. When those dogs and handlers took breaks away from the horror, firefighters and other first responders gravitated to the dogs, petting them and hugging them. Because the search and rescue dogs were so helpful, the call then went out for therapy dogs that specialize in providing comfort and relieving stress.

Wildlife baby shower

Skye's Spirit Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is hosting a Baby Shower for Wildlife from noon to 4 p.m. next Saturday at the center in Barkeyville, Venango County. Visitors can see wild birds of prey and a porcupine, skunk and bobcat. Watch baby wildlife on a live feed camera and shop local vendors. The event is to raise funds and supplies the center needs to care for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife.

Go to www.skyes-spirit.com or the center's Facebook page for a list of needed supplies, including bird seed, feed-quality hay, liquid laundry soap and gift cards from Grove City Agway, Home Depot, Lowe's, lumber yards and grocery stores.

The mailing address is 889 Farren Surrena Road, Harrisville, Pa. 16038.

Shadyside dog walk

The second annual Bark Shadyside Pup Walk next Saturday is a 1-mile jaunt that benefits the Animal Rescue League shelter in Larimer. Vendors booths and free give-aways start at 9 a.m. in the Liberty Elementary School parking lot, corner of Ellsworth Avenue and Ivy Street. The walk starts at 10 a.m. and vendors will be on site until 2 p.m.

Advance registration is $10 online at www.animalrescue.org/bark-shadyside-registration or $15 the day of the walk. Registered pups get a Bark Shadyside bandana and a goodie bag. Last year, 169 dogs participated.

The pup walk is presented by the Petagogy shop and is part of the Think Shadyside spring events, all in the same parking lot. The Great Shadyside Yard Sale is 8 a.m.-2 p.m., and proceeds benefit ARL. Volunteers will pick up trash, work and plant flowers from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Send email to office@thinkshadyside.com to volunteer for Spring Redd Up Shadyside.

Proper pit bull

Pit bulls have a new set of friends. The Proper Pit Bull is an education, advocacy, outreach and rescue organization. The mission "is to promote proper pit bull ownership and responsible rescue through community partnerships, education and positive training," said president Nicole Garritano.

The group's launch party is from 7 to 11 p.m. next Saturday at Dave & Buster's, 180 E. Waterfront Drive, Homestead, 15120. The Proper Pit Bull Launch Party is a Facebook page with further information. Admission is free but there will be raffles and merchandise sales.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Contact Linda Wilson on her Facebook page, lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064. Got a pet health question? Email it to petpoints@post-gazette.com. It may be answered in an upcoming Pet Points column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic.

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