Trainers Academy Trainer and Dog Spread Joy and Hope

By Rachel Miller, reprinted with permission from the author

When she was younger, Jan Bragoli wanted one thing more than anything else: a pony.

"I always wanted a pony," Bragoli says, looking out across the vibrant greenery of her farm on the outskirts of a Detroit suburb. "But no one took me seriously."

Little did she know that one day she'd not only be the proud owner of a horse, she'd also have a few mules. And eventually, a dog that's so large that it might be mistaken for a small pony.

Weighing in at 100 pounds (45 kg) and standing 31 inches (79 cm) tall, it's that massive canine – a 17-month-old Leonberger named Arielle – who was certified in June 2004 as a therapy dog. At first,
it might seem odd that such a large dog is so well-suited for interacting with the wheelchair-bound and ill, but once you meet Arielle, it all makes sense. With eyes the color of rich mahogany, Arielle radiates a gentle wisdom and a kindness so innate that it feels almost misplaced.

But don't be fooled, Bragoli says. If Arielle thinks you want to play, that look in her eyes switches immediately to a mischievous glint. "She takes a cue from people," Bragoli says, "If they're excitable, she'll pick up on that."

One reason for that, of course, is that Arielle is still a puppy. She'll gain another 30 pounds (13.5 kg) before reaching her adult weight, Bragoli says.

Interestingly enough, it's Arielle's size that makes her such a great candidate for therapy work.

"Her large size makes her very accessible to wheelchairs," Bragoli explains.

Plus, Arielle can handle situations in which other dogs might get uncomfortable or feel threatened. "She sees from 50 to 100 people during each visit and there are times when 20 people are around at
the same time, or that she's completely surrounded by wheelchairs," she says. "Arielle takes it all in stride, wagging her tail and licking as many faces as possible."

Bragoli and Arielle spend about two hours a week visiting patients – one hour at a hospice-care facility, another hour at a psychotherapy unit – and the effects of their presence are immediately evident.

"When we arrive, there are people waiting at the door for us," Bragoli says. "And the cry goes out, `She's here!'"

Word usually spreads quickly around the facility, and soon Arielle is hard at work. Whether it's eliciting smiles from cancer patients or just silently providing comfort to those who are lonely, Arielle's time with the patients is precious.

There are moments – such as one in a hospital's emergency room during Arielle's last test for therapy certification – that reassure Bragoli that their visits really do make a difference.

"We were in the emergency room when this shrieking suddenly started," she remembers. "Arielle kept looking over in that direction, so we went to see what was happening. There was this little girl wearing a
purple shirt that said `Little Princess'. Her shirt was tear-stained, her eyes were swollen and red – she wouldn't let anyone console her."

The sullen girl then looked over at Arielle, and the dog immediately responded.

"Arielle's tail started wagging," Bragoli continues. "The girl came over and literally buried her face in Arielle's neck. When the girl finally pulled her face away, she was smiling."

"I can't explain it," she says, shaking her head. "It's very spiritual – it's a special thing that happens. I feel very good about what we do. I can't patch the hole in the ozone, but I can do little stuff. And we can make people feel better."

She pauses and smiles before adding, "I think I get as much out of it, if not more, as the people we visit."

Jan is a an honorary Training Coach with Trainers Academy.  If you would like to ask her a question about her work, send all queries to woofologist@yahoo.com.

Arielle is certified through Therapy Dogs Inc. – for more information on that program and the work it does, visit: http://therapydogs.com/

Leonbergers are a rare and interesting breed – there are only about 2,000 in the United States. For more information on the breed, visit: http://www.leonbergerclubofamerica.com

Read a Q&A by Jan and Arielle about therapy work.