Volunteers bring therapy dogs to AIU’s Sunrise School in Monroeville

Talk about feeling welcome.

“We usually come here one Friday a month,” Gloria Frick said, “and they always tell us, you can come every Friday.”

As a volunteer for the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Frick leads groups of four-legged friends to various locales, including the special-education Sunrise School in Monroeville. She hopes that the dogs’ March 11 visit represents a resumption of regularly scheduled stops at the school.

So does assistant principal Clay Stone.

“They provide that therapeutic service for our kids that’s just very calming and relaxing, and that’s why we try to get them out here at least once a month,” he said. “And staff likes it just as much as kids do. I mean, before they even went around, I was out there for 10 minutes petting the dogs myself.”

Tagging along with Frick was Percy, one of her two corgis. Joining her with their dogs were fellow volunteers Carol Capezzuto, Marilyn Keteles and Christine Simpson.

Keteles brought a big, friendly fellow named Teddy, on what marked a first for him. She has taken him to stores where his presence is permitted, and so he has experience around people who are strangers to him.

But he’s never been around kids like this,” she said, and judging by his behavior: “He’s going to be a great therapy dog.”

Teddy, who hasn’t yet reached his second birthday, is Keteles’ third therapy dog.

“I’m a retired teacher, and I still wanted to be around children,” the Churchill resident said about her canine-related volunteerism. “There is such a calming effect on everyone when they pet a dog. It’s amazing.”

A former Woodland Hills High School educator, Keteles also enjoys having her pets put smiles on faces at healthcare facilities.

“I’m just so happy that I made a difference.”

As for Frick, she started making therapeutic visits 19 years ago, when she was working as a nurse at Linton Middle School in Penn Hills.

“I had adopted a greyhound, and I took him into school for people to see him,” the former Plum resident said.

One of them, the school’s PTA president, took note of the dog’s affinity for humans and asked Frick to bring him to the Penn Hills nursing home where she was a social worker.

“There was a lady in the dementia unit who, all she did all day was hang clothes, and she never talked coherently to anybody,” Frick said. “She turned around and looked at him, and she says, ‘Oh, that’s a greyhound.’ Then she talked totally appropriately to us for about 10 minutes, asked if he raced at Wheeling.

“As soon as we walked out of her field of vision, she was back to hanging clothes.”

Thusly inspired, Frick set out to make more visits, including schools for the past eight years. And she tells similar success stories.

“There are a lot of kids who won’t read out loud. They won’t read to the teachers. But they’ll read to the dogs,” she said. “And it’s really funny, because they’ll be reading to the dog, and if their teacher walks by, they stop. And as soon as the teacher walks away, they’ll read to the dog again.”

On a more serious note, Frick provided an example of a dog helping a young person communicate in the course of an abuse case.

“The child would not talk to anyone,” she said. “He laid down, hugged the dog and told the dog what was happening to him. But he wouldn’t tell any of the social workers.”

At Sunrise School, which is operated by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and serves students with special needs between ages 5 to 21, the visiting pooches are greeted almost universally with a healthy degree of excitement and enthusiasm.

“We’re also at a point in the year where: It’s March. You can see the finish line, but it’s a very long race,” Stone said. “So having the dogs come in gives everybody a breath of fresh air.”

For information about the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, visit www.therapydogs.com.

Harry Funk is a Tribune-Review news editor. You can contact Harry at [email protected]

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