‘Good Boy’: Therapy Dogs Serve the Catholic Community

Furry creatures show ‘canine compassion’ and offer aid to healing and well-being for young and old alike, at school and elsewhere.

Dogs serve at a variety of facilities: Clockwise from top left, health care, with support from Love on 4 Paws in Los Angeles; campus, at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in Boulder, Colorado; settings for children in need at Catholic Charities of Baltimore; and at Catholic schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Dogs serve at a variety of facilities: Clockwise from top left, health care, with support from Love on 4 Paws in Los Angeles; campus, at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in Boulder, Colorado; settings for children in need at Catholic Charities of Baltimore; and at Catholic schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan. (photo: Courtesy of Love on 4 Paws, Megan Dillon at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center, Catholic Charities of Baltimore, and the Diocese of Grand Rapids)

Bandit is a young male shepherd mix with a playful personality. 

He also goes to school — John F. Kennedy Catholic School, located in Davenport, Iowa, to be exact. The school offers instruction for students in grades K-8 and serves Our Lady of Victory parish, where the schoolchildren attend weekly Mass. 

Emma Wolf, the student support specialist at the school, shared with the Register about Bandit. 

“Bandit is really good with kids and the staff; I can tell he misses them, as we’re on summer break right now,” said Wolf, who explained that the canine, who lives with her, spends the majority of his time at the school during school days doing check-ins with students or even attending meetings. 

“He’s such a goofy, easygoing, lovable dog,” Wolf remarked, adding that he senses who is in need of his presence at any given moment. 

Bandit school facility dog.
Bandit likes going to school and spending time with students at John F. Kennedy Catholic School in Davenport, Iowa.(Photo: Courtesy of Emma Wolf)

“There have been times when Bandit can tell when a student, or a teacher, needs a little extra attention, and he’ll sit next to them for an extended time before going on to the next person.” 

“Bandit definitely helps a room relax,” she added. “Bandit helps calm a room.” 

Wolf said Bandit is highly trained to undergo specific tasks to assist professionals who work with a wide range of children and helps students deal with a range of emotions. 

He can accept commands, provide physical support, and serve as an aid to individuals in crisis, too. 

He works every day of the school week and is considered a part of the staff. 

Bandit arrived at the school in late March, and the community has accepted and welcomed him. He particularly enjoys when the students drop by Wolf’s office: “Bandit definitely brings smiles and laughter to the kids and staff.”

Bandit isn’t an anomaly. Therapy and support dogs have become a staple in our communities as they serve to promote health and wellness.

They advance an all-around healthy living environment and promote the well-being of both young and old people. 

Now — more than ever — these dogs are seen as a fundamental resource at assisted-living and nursing homes and schools and are even present at Newman Centers on college campuses. 

Among the other places dogs serve are St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Catholic Charities of Baltimore and Catholic hospitals. 


Canine Companions

The St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center (or Newman Center) serves the Catholic community at the University of Colorado-Boulder through living and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Two dogs serve as part of the welcoming community at the center. 

These “furry friends” are Simon, an 8-year-old Goldendoodle, and Winnie, a 3-year-old Bernadoodle. They belong to Megan Dillon, director of advancement at the St. Thomas Aquinas Center. They go to work with her most days — just as they have since they were little puppies. 

The Catholic Center is located across from campus; the Catholic Center building receives more than 1,000 students every year. 

Dillon says that these adorable pups really add to the ministry’s mission. 

Though Simon and Winnie are not trained therapy dogs, they serve the Catholic community by offering support to students, serving as emotional support dogs. 

There is consistent feedback from students about how much they love Winnie and Simon and the comfort that they bring people who are having a rough day or feeling homesick. 

They bring a “home away from home” sort of feel to the Catholic Center, Dillon said, because they brighten everyone’s day.


Diocese of Grand Rapids

Five dogs — Lola, Charlotte, Eve, Anna and Josie, all a few years old — serve students at schools in the Grand Rapids Diocese in Michigan. 

The dogs are very much welcomed and seen as “little blessings” and put children at ease, according to Sarah Toepfer, marketing coordinator for the Diocese of Grand Rapids. 

“So many children light up and relax when they see the dogs. Everyone takes responsibility for their dog and even considers them mini mascots,” Toepfer explained. 

Teachers comment that the therapy dogs have helped children who struggle to participate in the classroom, with reading in front of the class and other activities. 

“In many instances, therapy dogs help our emergent readers. Students practice sounding out letters and words to a dog that is able to distract and reduce stress for students who may be feeling discomfort or self-conscious about reading,” Toepfer said. 

Parents have also gotten involved in the process. 

Erika Chapman, a mother of two students at All Saints Academy, wanted to find a way for Lola, her therapy dog, to exercise her skills. Visiting the school’s classrooms was the perfect opportunity to do so.

“The kids are always really excited to see her. While I’m walking down the hallway I can hear the students in their classrooms whispering ‘Lola is here!’ to one another,” said Chapman.

Another parent commented on the change that she saw in students. “Sweet Eve has made a huge difference in our students’ day. It’s amazing how much joy and comfort she brings,” Marcie Bodbyl Schaab said. 

The Catholic schools in this district take responsibility in “responding to and meeting the specific needs of its students,” and the diocese seeks to continue this effort in a variety of ways. 

The therapy dogs provide help for students for focus and stress relief. Studies have shown that students have benefited from exposure to these pets, explained Toepfer. 

Therapy dogs are used in many capacities throughout the diocese, as well — some dogs are used at the local ski hill, standing by skiers who have been injured, while others visit hospice patients and even courthouses to relieve those who work in stressful environments. 


Love on 4 Paws

Love on 4 Paws is a nonprofit organization that serves both adults and children with special needs with animal-assisted therapy in hospitals, health care facilities and schools; it also participates in community events in the greater Los Angeles area. 

Both therapy dogs and cats participate in treatment for patients in 30 facilities in the City of Angels metro area.

These pets — around 40 total — visit the locations on a regular basis, accompanied by human companions. 

Their work can be found on their Instagram page, which includes posts showing their service to the community.

“Our volunteers bring comfort and joy to those in need by sharing their pet’s unconditional love,” said Merceds Legaspi, the group’s administrative coordinator. 

“The opportunity arises, we answer that call and we accommodate their needs,” she said. 

These experiences are “very gratifying” and are the “little moments” that these volunteers get to experience when they share their “best friend” with others. 

Some of the benefits of therapy dogs are that they can be shown to help lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety and ease pain.

Though their organization does not serve any one particular community, they do serve the Catholic community by ministering to the patients at Catholic hospitals and have also visited a local Catholic university. 


More therapy and schools dogs
Therapy dogs always bring smiles.(Photo: Courtesy of Catholic Charities of Baltimore and the Diocese of Grand Rapids)

Catholic Charities of Baltimore

The Catholic Charities of Baltimore runs a diagnostic school called St. Vincent’s Villa, which provides comprehensive residential treatment, including therapy and rehabilitation dogs, for troubled children. 

The Register spoke to Ezra Buchdahl, administrator at Catholic Charities of Baltimore, about the use of therapy dogs and what impact their presence has made on the children who are helped. 

The Catholic Charities organization received its first rehabilitative facility dog, Carmen, about five years ago. Carmen is now 7 years old. 

A rehabilitative facility dog is different than a therapy or emotional support dog, as the dogs serve in different capacities. 

Carmen is a highly trained and skilled dog used to provide “goal-directed animal-assisted interventions, individually or as part of a group, to include improvement in physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning of SVV clients and VMS students,” Buchdahl said. 

The well-trained dog knows more than 100 commands. 

Carmen’s canine buddy Currahee is a 1-year-old golden retriever. Currahee primarily provides support to the students at Villa Maria School, while Carmen primarily serves the children at St. Vincent’s Villa. 

Currahee is a Cherokee name that means “We Stand Alone, Together.” 

“Carmen and Currahee have been game changers. They change the feel/vibe of the community in a positive way,” Buchdahl said. 

“These dogs serve as a safe, comforting and therapeutic intervention for children with significant emotional and behavioral challenges related to past trauma and/or mental-health issues,” he underscored. 

Their work includes supporting children in therapy sessions and in emotional distress as well as at hospitals. 

“They automatically make people feel calmer and more comfortable, which for our population is an important part of their healing process,” Buchdahl explained. 

“These dogs are ‘difference makers.’”