In The Company of Angels

In his book Angel on a Leash, Westminster's David Frei celebrates the power of therapy dogs.

By | Posted: Feb 6, 2013, 9 a.m. EDT

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David FreiHe has been called the most well-known human in the world of canines.

David Frei, a longtime breeder-owner-handler and judge of purebred dogs, gives viewers a guided tour of the world of dogs each year during the two most popular dog shows on television: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show every February and The National Dog Show, broadcast on Thanksgiving Day.

Frei is an affable, ever-smiling, plainspoken man of many dimensions. Meet him in person and the first thing you notice is a huge, dazzling Super Bowl ring, earned when he did public relations work for the Denver Broncos football team.

Yet away from the dog show ring, his passion is Angel on a Leash, a charity he helped found, partnering with Westminster. It supports therapy dog programs at a number of health care facilities, initially in New York and now around the country.

In his recently released book Angel on a Leash: Therapy Dogs and the Lives They Touch (BowTie Press), Frei takes readers along as he and his therapy dogs make visits, especially to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Ronald McDonald House of New York, where his wife, Cherilyn, is director of family support and a Catholic chaplain.

In a recent interview, he shared his love for this special calling.

Angel on a LeashQ: What is it about the therapy dog experience that has made you a leading champion of expanding therapy dog programs nationwide?

A: In the simplest terms, it is just seeing how people react. When you walk into the room with a dog — and really it could be any dog — it changes the energy in the room. When it happens with therapy dogs, they can follow up on that; they can go over and stick their noses in somebody’s face, sit on somebody’s lap. They can get people to stop and think about something other than what is challenging them. They can get them to smile or talk. They aren’t miracles, but they certainly are little miracles. They make somebody’s day. Any of us who visit with our dogs know that it is all about those moments.

Q: In the book you describe a number of moving encounters. Is there one that stands out?

A: The most impactful was my very first visit at Sloan-Kettering, which was the first week that it allowed therapy dogs. We went to the 10th floor, which is women’s health, and in the very first room the woman there had her arms crossed across her chest and was crying and in pain. I said, “Are you OK? Do you need a chaplain? Do you need a social worker or a nurse?” She said, “No, I need you two.” That was how we started with Teigh, my Brittany. It was the most impactful visit because I knew when we walked out of that room a half hour later, she was still in pain but she was smiling. Those kinds of things happen a lot. When you know you are giving someone a moment that they haven’t had for a while, those are the ones that touch me the most.

Q: Sometimes the visits are wrenching, as you describe. Can you talk about that aspect of volunteering?

A: I am really strict about limiting my dogs’ time. Visits can be very draining. There are times when I go home with my dogs and they are as gassed as if they have been running around in a field for the last two hours. The dog is putting a lot into it, and you just have to be careful.

Q: You write about a number of Westminster champions who went on to become outstanding therapy dogs, especially citing Rufus, a Bull Terrier, and James. You say that James, the English Springer Spaniel who won in 2007 and passed in May this year, is the greatest working therapy dog you have ever seen. What made James so special?

A: It really goes to the team, and Terry Patton, his handler, really trained him well. When James was there with a patient, he was engaged with the patient. Even some of the best therapy dogs are constantly looking to their handlers for direction, but James knew what he was supposed to do. It wasn’t about James; it was about who he was visiting. And Rufus and Barbara and Tom Bishop are a wonderful therapy team. Their celebrity gets them inside a lot of doors, but it is what they do once they get inside that really makes a difference. When Rufus is in there, he just works his magic.

Q: How can our readers know if they might have potential therapy dogs?

A: A dog has to be able to come into situations and can’t be afraid of noises or different people. So it is important to go to a good evaluation organization like the Delta Society, which tests every sort of encounter, from dropping a bedpan on the floor to having something unexpected happen. And you as a handler must be able to deal with the unexpected as well. It’s just like in the dog show ring; the dog feels what you are feeling because it goes right down the leash. If you are apprehensive or afraid of a situation, the dog is going to know and reflect that as well. And if it is not fun and enjoyable for both you and the dog, ultimately it won’t be fun for you as a team.

Q: We often talk about our dogs as living in the moment. What have your therapy dogs taught you about life and how to live it?

A: For me that spontaneity of just enjoying what’s happening right now is really the heart and soul of what we are doing in therapy dog work. We can’t worry about yesterday, and we can’t worry about tomorrow. Dogs don’t care how people look or how they dress, whether they are sleeping on cardboard on the street or laid up in a bed with tubes hanging out of them. Dogs don’t care about any of that stuff. That’s the great lesson that we learn from our dogs. We need to worry less about what we teach our dogs and more about what we can learn from them, their unconditional love and universal acceptance.

To learn more about Angel on a Leash and therapy dogs, visit AngelOnALeash.org

 

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