Local therapy dogs comfort elderly, sick

March 18, 2017 • Local News

These four best friends meet every Frid[auth] ay at Senior Circle. From left, Megan Creighton, advisor at Senior Circle, helps Marilyn Cozzens and Carol Valenzuela with Tango, Jetta, Chocolate and Marshall during their weekly visit to the senior facility. (Curtis Michaels Photo)

At 3 years old, Marshall loves to go play with his friends Chocolate, 12; Jetta, 5; and Tango, 8. Swimming is his favorite activity.
Marshall and Tango are golden retrievers. Chocolate and Jetta are Labrador retrievers. All four are certified therapy dogs.
According to their website, “Therapy Dogs International is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions and wherever else therapy dogs are needed.”
TDI has been active since 1976, and Marshall’s trainer, Carol Valenzuela, has been working with them for quite some time.
“I’ve been working with therapy dogs for 20 years now,” Valenzuela said. “I started in Carlsbad with the therapy dog group there. Marshall is my sixth therapy dog.”
Valenzuela gave an overview of what is needed for a dog to become certified by TDI.
“One of the things the dogs have to do to become a therapy dog is to successfully complete an obedience class,” Valenzuela said. “Then they go to Alamogordo to get evaluated. They have to love people, not be dog aggressive, and not easily startled or scared by anything else. They have to be calm.”
Marilyn Cozzens has been working with TDI for a short time, but she’s in it all the way.
“I’ve been working with therapy dogs since early 2015,” Cozzens said. “I got the dogs when (neighbor) Sarah Brinegar had to move away and give up the dogs, so I took them. We’ve had a good time turning them into therapy dogs.”
Valenzuela talked about the devotion behind this work.
“The normal commitment that most people make with a therapy dog is once a month,” Valenzuela said. “Marilyn is doing more work than I am now. I take Marshall to Sunset Villa two times a month and to Senior Circle every Friday. We’ve requested to go into Mission Arch and Beehive, but nobody has gotten back with us. We don’t go into a place unless we’re asked to.”
Even when a dog is certified safe, some people fear the worst. Valenzuela said TDI has that concern in mind.
“Therapy Dogs International guarantees two things,” Valenzuela said. “The temperament of the dog and a nice, hefty insurance policy.”
Cozzens and her three have a routine mapped out.
“I go to Senior Circle,” Cozzens said, “then I go to the Alzheimer’s unit at Brookdale, and then I go to the other side of Brookdale, and I go out to Casa Maria.”
She brings smiles everywhere she goes.
“Jetta and I were in the Alzheimer’s unit one day,” Cozzens said, “and a lady was having her 100th birthday celebration, and the lady was so happy to see Jetta. The family loved it, too.
“At Casa Maria, a man and his lady friend are always sitting together. The man never acknowledged Tango, but the lady always visited with him. One day the man rested his arm on Tango and talked to him for 15 minutes. Since then, he always visits with Tango when we come.”
Valenzuela remembered the moment she knew she was supposed to be doing this work.
“I got involved with therapy dogs years ago because of a friend who was starting the program and whom Marshall is named for,” she said. “We brought a cocker spaniel named Sheba. In our very first visit, the lady that was with us said, ‘You can put Sheba on the bed next to this lady.’
“I put Sheba up next to the lady, and she sat up and started petting Sheba and talking to her. The nursing aide was crying and said, ‘She hasn’t moved or said a word in four or five months.’ When your very first visit is like that, it’s like you were meant to do this.”
Cozzens, Valenzuela and the others working with TDI would like to take their dogs to schools and other youth-related sites.
“We have a program through TDI called Reading for Children,” Valenzuela said, “and one of our members went to the library a couple of times to offer and their response was lukewarm.”
They also know their dogs could make a positive difference for the children in times of need.
“It would be good if, during a crisis, we had an entrance into the schools to help,” Cozzens said. “We have the liability insurance.”
For more information, Cozzens can be reached at 627-5871.
Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at

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