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Therapy Pets Provide Comfort at Pentagon

They remembered the boy who laid down next to Ivy, a seven-year-old black lab.

They remembered men in uniform missing their own pets and wanting to talk to Ivy and two Cardigan Welsh Corgis, Marco and Bouncing Blue, or B.B. for short.

“People talk to you, I’m talking about the upper brass,” said Ruth Ellen Coffey of Herndon, a member of Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers Pet Therapy Team.

Coffey and Middleburg residents Peggy Hooven and Kathy Spilhaus, all members of Therapy Dogs International, Inc., took their therapy dogs to the Pentagon briefings for family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

“They were just there in the rooms, so family members could take a time-out and play with the dogs. Anyone who needed a break, these dogs were there,” said Nancy Sutton, executive director of Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers, Inc., which formed in 1995.

WITH THE HELP of the Area Agency on Aging, Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers had just started the Pet Therapy Program, holding the first meeting at the end of August in 2001. Since then, 15 Pet Therapy Teams, which consist of a dog and a dog handler, underwent training, testing and certification through Therapy Dogs International to volunteer through the Pet Therapy Program.

“It was timing. We were fortunate we had dogs that could go down there and help,” Sutton said.

Coffey went to the Pentagon in September and for two days in October, while Hooven and Spilhaus went for one day in October to volunteer with the Pentagon Family Assistance Center for all branches of service and for civilian workers at the site. The Fredericksburg Spirit Keepers oversaw pet therapy teams from the region.

“Some of these children were so distressed, but they could talk to the dogs,” Coffey said.

Therapy dogs are required to like being petted and held, so they can provide comfort and companionship, Sutton said. They also have to be obedient and socialized to get along with people and other dogs.

“They have to be very calm around the unexpected,” Sutton said.

DOGS AND THEIR handlers from Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers typically visit adult care facilities and nursing homes, making two visits a month. “At the end of one-and-a-half hours, the dog is exhausted. They feel these people need to hug on them and love them,” Sutton said.

“You can see people’s faces change,” Coffey said. “Their faces light up.”

Spilhaus said the therapy dogs help residents who will not talk to the staff. “It helps people who won’t talk,” she said. “They sense the emotions of people.”

Sometimes, the residents will tell the dogs what they have been doing since the last time the therapy teams visited, Coffey said.

“It’s kind of like group therapy,” Hooven said.