Austin Dog Alliance therapy dogs comfort families, veterans

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There’s proven, chemical evidence of the positive bond that forms between a dog and its human owner. The same feel-good hormonal chemical released when people fall in love that leads to bonding — oxytocin — is released in both dogs and humans when they look at each other in the eyes. When people say they think of their dog as their “fur baby,” it’s similar to what they feel toward their real baby.  

That’s one of the main reasons why the therapy dogs trained at Austin Dog Alliance in Cedar Park have been instrumental in helping quell anxiety, stress and in some cases, mental health conditions in patients. In 2016 alone, 160 Alliance therapy dog teams visited more than 275 partner sites, including hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and family courts, serving more than 50,000 central Texans.

This past month, the Texas Bar Association awarded the Austin dog organization $8,325 for its Therapy Dogs in the Courtroom program. The grant, which will fund the program for one year, will enable the Alliance to expand this program that brings trained therapy dog teams to the Travis County child-welfare court to reduce the tensions of children and adults during stressful proceedings.

Judge Darlene Byrne, who presides over the 126th District Court where the program is active, welcomes the therapy dogs.

“Our courtroom is like the ER of the hospital for children and families that come before us because of allegations of abuse and neglect of the children, and therapy dogs have been such a calming, nurturing addition,” Byrne said. “These children and families are frightened, traumatized and worried about what is going to happen to them,” she said. “When they come to the courtroom floor and find a calm and loving therapy dog there to pet, to just be, to accept them for who they are, it helps soothe fears and bring down anxieties.”

In addition to the Therapy Dogs in the Courtroom program, the Alliance offers several dog-related programs for the community.

The Hounds for Heroes program trains dogs to pair up with at-risk veterans, S+CORE builds job skills for adults with disabilities through dog-related jobs such as grooming, Bow Wow Reading Dogs provides young student readers with trained dogs to read every week of the school year as well as several therapy programs for special needs.

A common outing for Austin Dog Alliance therapy teams is each Sunday at William R. Courtney Texas State Veterans Home in Temple, Texas. Volunteer therapy teams travel more than hour every Sunday to visit its residents. A lot of times the residents can be found waiting outside to greet the dogs, said Sherron Smith, activity director.

“We have one resident that tended to stay in her room and didn’t want to do anything,” Smith said. “She has been one of the dogs’ favorites and I attribute the dogs to getting her out and participating with different things. Now she volunteers with the activities department and all she talks about are the dogs and how happy they make her. The organization does wonderful things with our residents.”

When Debi Krakar founded the Austin Dog Alliance in 2006, Austin’s animal shelters were putting down 40 dogs a day. Initially, the organization served as an animal rescue as well as children’s programming. After convincing one of the Leander schools to let her do what would later become the Bow Wow Reading Dogs, the program became a quick success.  

“It only took her like three or four weeks before the principal called me up and was like ‘this is working great, can you get more dogs?” Krakar said. “For me, that was kinda like ‘ding, ding, ding!’ If I could learn how to train dogs, I could train people, and we could have more dogs and we could have lots of dogs in the school. That was the beginning of therapy training.”

The Austin Dog Alliance today sits on seven acres of land at 1321 W. New Hope Drive in Cedar Park, which opened in 2013. The facility features oversized training rooms, a service dog kennel, an agility competition training field and two wide open dog parks for students and their dogs.

“I get to make people’s lives better,” Krakar said. “On a personal level, I enjoy the dogs and like watching how they interact with each other. How could you not enjoy throwing a ball and watching the dog come back all smiles and wiggly tails? But I also love that I can use the dog with someone so that they’re not suicidal, so I can save their marriage, so I can get that phone call from a student that says ‘I got a job!’ That’s what keeps me going.”

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