by Lorie Lewis Ham
Recently I met Shannon Escobedo and her two therapy dogs, Doxie and Fozzy, at the Reedley Library. She now brings them to the Library on Saturday’s to have the kids read to them. I thought it would be nice to chat with her about the dogs, and how she got involved with therapy.
KRL: When and how did you first get involved with therapy dogs?
Shannon: My grandmother was getting in-home care by my mother for Alzheimer’s and dementia. My dog, Doxie, was so gentle with her and would sit with her, cuddle her, and provide her such comfort and joy! Doxie looked a lot like her old dog, Punkin, so sometimes she would think he was Punkin. She always was at her most alert and lucid with Doxie at her side. She was going to be moving into a care facility, so I decided to train Doxie to be a therapy dog so that we could continue to visit her after she was at her new residence.
Doxie was already the Education and Outreach dog for Valley Animal Center, a no-kill animal shelter in Fresno, so already knew everything that was on the therapy dog test. He was wonderful with kids, medical equipment, loud noises, all different kinds of people, knew his obedience commands, how to leave food, and was good with other animals. He passed both of his practice tests with flying colors, and passed his therapy dog test on the first try in 2014. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away after only one week in the new care facility, but we decided to carry on in her name to bring others joy through canine companionship.
Doxie and Fozzy’s favorites are children, so we visit primarily at libraries and schools, but we also do quite a few nursing home visits, college stress relief visits, and occasional hospital visits. Others in our chapter visit at the Veteran’s Home, Valley Children’s Hospital, hospice care facilities, and in courtrooms to help people, especially kids, handle the stress of testifying.
KRL: What is Tail Waggin’ Tutor?
Shannon: A Tail Waggin’ Tutor is one of the jobs that a therapy dog registered with Therapy Dogs International can do. It is also referred to as a reading assistance dog. Basically, the dogs go to libraries and schools, and the children read to them. If they are pre-readers and don’t know words yet, they talk to the dogs about the pictures in the books. Sometimes, they prefer that their parents or me, as the dog handler, read to them. It really helps the kids by first getting them interested and excited about reading, and second, by giving them the confidence to read because the dogs are not judging them on their pronunciation. Many studies have shown that having reading dogs in libraries and in the classroom dramatically helps literacy statistics.
KRL: Why do you feel this is important?
Shannon: I love reading, and it brings me such joy to bring that love of reading to the next generation. We love supporting education programs in all forms. It gives kids the confidence they need to read aloud. They learn to love reading and look forward to going to school or visiting their local libraries. Additionally, we are able to support local authors since most of the books that we bring to our reading events are from such authors. A lot of the books that we bring have animal characters, so we also can teach kids about caring for our animal friends, too. Several of the dogs in our therapy dog chapter are bully breed type dogs, so it helps their negative stereotype in our community to show how these dogs are just as likely to be friendly, gentle, well-trained, loving companions.
KRL: Please share Doxie and Fozzy’s story with us.
Shannon: Doxie was actually born in my house. I live out in Wonder Valley and was driving home on a Friday evening in March after work when I saw a Chihuahua/Dachshund mix wandering around the orange groves miles away from humans by the side of the road. Sucker that I am, I called to her because I knew she would just be coyote chow if she was caught out there after dark. She jumped into my car and I took her home. I could tell she was very pregnant, so I called Valley Animal Center and made an emergency appointment to get her fixed Monday morning. Fate had other plans. She had the pups the very next morning, and Doxie was one of them. With his long, silky fur and the fact that he was twice the size of his mother and looked nothing like her, we figure that his father was probably a shih-tzu.
He is currently eight-and-a-half-years-old. He was always the smartest and most gentle of the pups and chose to play with me rather than with his brothers or mom. We kept him and started his training basically as soon as his eyes were open. He was potty trained by two months and knew basic obedience by four months. Now, he knows over fifty commands and tricks and has his trick dog performer certificate from the AKC, as well as his Canine Good Citizenship (CGC), CGC Urban, CGC Advanced, and AKC therapy dog. He’s been on TV a lot, done parades, and more school visits and camps than we can count. He was the perfect temperament for therapy dog work at birth. I was so lucky that I happened to be on that road at just the right time to meet my new best friend!
Fozzy Bear, named after the muppet, had a similar story. He, along with his two brothers, were found by a good Samaritan in a basket abandoned in a field outside of Fresno at five weeks old. They were taken to Valley Animal Center where I worked to be put in foster care. One of my friends and co-workers was fostering Fozzy, but a week after she took him in, she went on vacation and asked me to take care of him for a couple weeks until she got back. That very same night, he started intense vomiting and diarrhea. His brothers, in a different foster home, also had the same symptoms, and one passed away a few hours later. It turned out the pups had cryptosporidium parvum, a very deadly bacterial infection similar in symptoms to parvovirus. It usually takes seven-ten days for symptoms to appear, so they must have contracted it prior to being found. What followed was two months of my husband and I giving him intense treatments involving daily shots, fluid injections, and medications where we didn’t know if he was going to live or die. He finally tested negative, and his other brother also survived. After all that, we had lost our hearts and Fozzy became my “foster failure,” which means that we failed as foster parents…instead of bringing him back to the shelter to be adopted to another family, we adopted him ourselves!
He was also an extremely friendly and intelligent dog and followed the same path as Doxie, potty and obedience trained at a very young age and has all the same awards except for the AKC Therapy Dog title. We need 50 visits for that one, so we’re not quite there yet. Fozzy took a lot longer than his “brother” to become a therapy dog, though. We think he is a Golden Retriever/Siberian Husky mix, and both of those breeds are very high-energy with a very long “puppy stage.” Fozzy had the temperament and the intelligence, but was too bouncy to sit still to be a therapy dog. We did weekly training sessions, and he was finally mature enough to pass his test in September 2017 at age three-and-a-half. He is now four-and-a-half. Both Fozzy and Doxie are males.
KRL: Where all do you take them?
Shannon: We visit the Reedley Library at 1027 E. Street every Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then go up the hill to visit at Bear Mountain Library every Saturday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. We also do visits in classes and at camps at Wonder Valley Ranch’s River Way Ranch Camp, Valley Animal Center’s Humane Education Camp, the CCSPCA’s Children’s Camp, and countless schools and children’s groups. We do group visits at several nursing homes, retirement homes, memory care centers, and assisted living facilities in the Fresno and Clovis areas, also. We have done a few hospital visits, also, as well as stress relief at colleges and high schools during finals and midterm weeks. Official therapy dog visits through our Therapy Dogs International Chapter can only be done when we are volunteering our time, but we have done a lot of similar visits while I was working at Valley Animal Center, also.
KRL: Is there one special story that stands out from working with therapy dogs?
Shannon: One story that I can remember vividly was a girl that visits Doxie at Bear Mountain Library. She started off afraid of him, little as he is, and then learned that he was a good dog and loved kids and reading. She grew comfortable reading with him over time, and then went on to learn all about different kinds of dogs by reading books about them at home, at the library, and at school. She now regularly talks to us about the characteristics of this breed or that breed and which ones she wants to adopt when she grows up. She doesn’t have pets at home. She recently met Fozzy Bear and loved him at once. She brought her entire family over to the library to read with him and Doxie. I love seeing how much she loves reading and how much her perception of dogs has changed so much for the positive.
We have had wonderful stories from others in our chapter about how much the therapy dog program has helped people. Some children have said their first words to some of our dogs. Some have cuddled them on the stands in courtrooms while testifying in hard or sad situations. People that are hospital-bound or in hospice care have found solace with our dogs. It is truly the most rewarding experience and touches so many lives.
KRL: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Shannon: A lot of people confuse therapy dogs and service dogs or emotional support animals. Therapy dogs are not covered by the ADA and cannot go into every place, like restaurants. They need to be invited, and they are specially trained for their job to be petted and loved by everyone there: staff, patients, kids, etc. Service animals are covered by the ADA and generally cannot be petted, as they need to focus on their job with their person. Maybe they are a guide dog for a blind person, a dog that warns people with epilepsy or diabetes, or a hearing dog. These dogs are specially trained and are able to go with their owners into every place their owners are allowed to go, as they need these dogs to function in their daily life. Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are not covered by the ADA but can be prescribed by a doctor or psychiatrist to help comfort their owners, especially if their owners suffer from anxiety, depression, or PTSD. They are allowed in more places than therapy dogs, on planes for example, and can live with their owners in housing that generally do not allow pets, but again, are generally not able to be petted by anyone other than their human. They may or may not be specially trained, but need to be well-behaved in public settings.
If anyone is interested in joining our chapter, we are Therapy Dogs International Chapter #220 out of Fresno. We meet every second Monday of the month for an orientation for prospective members where I walk them through every part of the test that they will need to pass with their dog to become a therapy dog handler team as well as who we are and what we do. The meeting is at 7 p.m. at the Marie Callender’s at 1781 E. Shaw Ave., Fresno, CA 93710 (Cedar and Shaw across from Fresno State). No prior sign-ups are required, but the meeting is for humans only. For information, they can email our Chapter Director, Donna Sullivan, at tdifresno@gmail[dot]com.
For more information on Therapy dogs, please visit the following links from Therapy Dogs International’s website:
Check out more therapy dog and animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section.