Milford resident’s dogs provide therapy for Newtown children

Lauren Friedman’s two dogs, Siena and Drago, provide comfort when humans’ words cannot.

The two Spinone dogs regularly visit the Veterans Health Administration’s West Haven campus, a school for children with special needs in Trumbull, the Stratford library and local assisted living facilities. They are certified through Therapy Dog International (TDI), an organization committed to regulating, testing, and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer owners. Friedman evaluates dogs for TDI.

For the past six months, Siena and Drago have also worked with Newtown families at the town’s crisis counseling center.

“We’ve also visited just about every school in Newtown,” said Friedman.

Siena is 10 years old and Drago is seven. Friedman has cared for them since they were about two months old.

Friedman said the adults in Newtown are as appreciative of the therapy dogs’ presence as the children.

“Sometimes the dogs will accompany children into the crisis center,” she explained. “Other times I will go for a walk with a parent while their child is inside.”

Friedman insists that the dogs do all of the work and she is “just a chauffeur.”

“I take my lead from the dogs,” she added.

This week Siena and Drago were among the 70 TDI dogs honored by Newtown for being a part of the town’s healing process following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

“We’ve had dogs at the schools five days a week,” said Friedman. “Doing this kind of work where they’re being touched all day takes a lot out of dogs. They’re tired.”

Siena and Drago are taking a respite from their work in Newtown and letting other dog teams take over.

Before dogs could be part of Newtown’s therapeutic process, TDI evaluators, such as Friedman, carefully screened the animals and their handlers.

“TDI felt it was necessary to handle Newtown differently,” Friedman explained. “These were extraordinary circumstances so the dogs were treated as if they were part of TDI’s disaster stress relief dog program.”

Friedman was sent in to observe the therapy dogs to make sure they would be all right with all of the children and other dogs.

Although she has always been a dog lover, Friedman inadvertently stumbled into doing therapy dog work. In 1998, when her father became ill and was placed in a nursing home, Friedman felt guilty because she left her Spinone at home while she was at work and then every evening when she visited her father.

“I decided to bring her with me,” Friedman said. “She seemed to be a natural. She spent time with other people and they would be entertained by her.”

Based on this positive experience, Friedman investigated different therapy dog organizations.

Only dogs that are a year old are allowed to be tested by TDI’s evaluators. Friedman said there is an obedience facility in the area that provides tests once a year. Friedman, who is vice president of the Trap Falls Kennel Club, recently sponsored an evaluation for therapy dogs in Shelton. Out of the nine dogs that showed up, only one qualified.

“Not every dog is mentally capable of doing therapy work,” said Laura Wells, president of Trap Falls Kennel Club.

Friedman said a good therapy dog must have good manners and be well socialized.

“They also have to be willing to go into a school and nursing home and be comfortable with wheelchairs and other medical equipment,” Friedman said. “Some of the equipment and patients make odd sounds and they have to be comfortable with that. Overall, the dog has to be well rounded.”

Friedman describes Siena and Drago as “extremely versatile.”

At local assisted living facilities, Friedman typically pokes her head into a client’s room and lets them know that the dogs are available to visit. Sometimes she will ask to take the client’s hand and place it on the dog’s head.

“People will begin to open up,” she said. “They start to feel comfortable.”

Friedman and Siena and Drago often spend time at the VA Hospital’s blind center. The dogs also work with individuals who are deaf.

“They get something from the touching,” Friedman noted.

She said it takes them at least 30 minutes to get from the lobby to floor they are going to because people stop and interact with the dogs.

“It’s so little but it means so much,” Friedman said.