Pictured: Volunteers with some of the VIP Dog Teams trained therapy/facility dogs. Photo submitted. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Remember those historic photographs of Dalmatian dogs sitting atop fire engines, serving as mascots for fire stations? Well, in addition to being a great community ambassador, dogs provide great comfort to people of all ages working in challenging and stressful situations. 

More and more researchers are finding scientific proof of what those who spend their lives with dogs (and other animals, too) already know: They help bring a sense of calm and happiness. 

One local organization is working to bring more dogs into these environments to help kids and adults.

Mitch, a Goldendoodle with his handler Melissa Kasso, a school counselor at Rancho Rosal Elementary School in Camarillo. Photo submitted.

VIP Dog Teams is a Camarillo-based nonprofit organization with the mission of promoting the human-animal bond that transforms lives and leads to healing by fostering positive interactions with therapy and facility dogs. Nancy Mitchell, president and head trainer, says the organization is currently actively seeking community members interested in being dog handlers to bring a specially trained therapy/facility dog into their workplace. 

“VIP Dog Teams would love to place a school therapy/facility dog in any school that sees the healing power of a dog,” she said. Dogs are generally placed with physical, occupational and speech therapists as well as firefighters. Ideally there would be two co-handlers working together. 

Professional pups

Mitchell, who lives in Camarillo, is a registered nurse and teaches nurses at California State University, Channel Islands. She’s been training dogs for six years and is certified with the American Kennel Club as a Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) evaluator. She founded VIP Dog Teams in 2016, “after having a difficult time trying to find a service dog for my own special needs son. I ended up training a dog for him and we decided a therapy dog was a better fit for him.”

During the therapy work, with her son as the handler, “I saw the joy and happiness the dog brought to students and the confidence bringing a trained therapy dog on visits gave my son. I wanted to do this for more people, so I started VIP Dog Teams . . . I am an RN, baby nurse . . . so babies and puppies, what could be better?”

Mitch making the rounds at Rancho Rosal Elementary School. Photo submitted.

A certified therapy dog is generally the personal pet of their handler, who takes the dog to places where the dog can comfort or support those in need. The work is not limited to people who have recognized disabilities. The dogs generally go through basic obedience training, and it’s recommended they take a Therapy Prep Class to be assessed for obedience and temperament, making sure the dog is a good match for this type of work. Once a handler and dog pass a Therapy Dog Test, they can be registered with an organization offering therapy dog services. 

The added training for facility dogs is designed for preparing the dog to help professionals in their workplace with achieving goals with those the handler is serving. Teachers, therapists, medical providers and first responders are typically those who would partner with a facility dog to help people. In physical therapy situations, for example, a dog can help motivate the patient to pick up a ball to play with the dog, or throw a ball farther. The dog becomes part of the therapy to help meet therapeutic goals. 

Similarly, in a school setting, dogs can encourage students in new ways. Sometimes a nonverbal student may want to talk about the dog, or playing with the dog becomes a way to socialize with peers. The simple act of being calmed by the presence of a dog like Mitch, a Goldendoodle with VIP Dog Team, allows some students to focus more easily on classroom tasks and activities. 

A drawing of Mitch by a young artist at Rancho Rosal Elementary School in Camarillo.

Making the grade

Puppies under consideration by VIP Dog Teams are observed closely from birth. 

“We like the social butterfly puppy . . . We look for overall temperament. We test at seven weeks because puppies can have a fear period at eight weeks and we typically send puppies to their new homes at eight weeks old.” 

She said puppies are tested for over 10 different traits. 

“The big three seem to be retrieving, [it] shows a dog’s willingness to please and work with you. Quick recovery from startling experiences.” Mitchell explained that dogs will be placed in various situations  and “need to be comfortable and enjoy interacting. And lastly, but very importantly, social attraction: Does the pup enjoy being touched and giving-getting attention?” 

As a puppy Mitch lived with a puppy-raiser family who agreed to “take on the task of raising and training a puppy in their home, knowing they would release it around a year and a half old to go to his job.” 

The Millers were Mitch’s family; members attended training sessions with VIP Dog Teams every week and Mitch’s training progressed. 

Mitch will be two in January and has been in training since he was eight weeks old. He was temperament tested at seven weeks and showed the desirable traits. He passed his puppy classes, both standard and advanced CGC levels and a therapy preparation class with the Millers. 

In June, when he was a year and a half old, he went to live with his handler, Melissa Kasso, a school counselor at Rancho Rosal Elementary School in Camarillo. Mitch got two months to settle in and build trust with his new handler before more advanced training work. 

Mitch had to pass all the same levels he’d already passed with the Millers with his new handler before moving onto advanced training and testing.  

With all that training and testing under his collar, Mitch started his new job as a school therapy/facility dog at Rancho Rosal. 

Mitchell said that “utilizing canine assistants in schools for mental health is becoming more wide-spread,” as the benefits of therapy/facility dogs on campus are becoming apparent. They appear to give a big morale boost for both students and staff. 

“Mitch is so popular at this school that the teachers email the school counselor and reserve him. He makes his way to each and every classroom that has requested him.”

On the job

Research, including a study completed at Yale University, has demonstrated the cognitive, physiological and emotional benefits dogs can have on people of all ages. 

But one hurdle the organization is working to overcome relates to finding puppy raisers. 

“We have a very limited number of people willing to be puppy raisers,” Mitchell confirmed.

VIP Dog Teams is looking for responsible people in the community who would be willing to take on the task of raising a puppy from eight weeks old to one and a half years and commit to doing all the necessary training along the way, with the understanding that the dog go will ultimately go on to live with its handler. 

The organization is also “functionally breeding” for the special traits required by therapy dogs. Mitchell explained that they select a “very particular therapy mama dog,” who is bred with  “a therapy/facility dog dad to produce potential working therapy/facility puppies.” 

A recent litter born as part of the functional breeding program of VIP Dog Teams. Photo submitted.

Recently, a litter of puppies was born that are likely to have the traits needed for this specialized work. 

Before VIP began breeding tried-and-true therapy/facility dogs, the group rescued “very carefully tested dogs” from the Ventura County Animals Services shelter in Camarillo. The dogs were placed with inmates at the Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula for a training program. Four dogs were trained every six months, and 16 dogs graduated from the program. 

“We ran the program for two years and had an 80% success rate,” Mitchell said. “These dogs were adopted by the public and most are doing meet-and-greet therapy in our community.” 

The organization also manages two programs at the Camarillo Boys and Girls Club for teens and young kids. The therapy dogs help the teens explore various themes like trust, teamwork, communication and leadership, with each teen handling a dog during the session. For the younger kids, the dogs help them practice high-frequency reading words using games and one-on-one time. 

Dogs are rarely judgmental when a child makes a mistake, and many times the students are more comfortable taking risks and trying things when working with the dogs than they’d be when working with teachers. Volunteers bring their dogs to these sessions to play sight word games. The children show a considerable retention following the sessions with the dogs, compared to assessment prior to the sessions. 

Currently, VIP Dog Teams is “focused on facility and goal-oriented therapy dogs. We have been training approximately four dogs a year.” With functionally breeding for the desired traits, Mitchell added that “we can train even more dogs. We need to find people who want to utilize these dogs for facility and/or therapy work and have the time and effort to train with us. I feel like the general public just doesn’t know we are here, but we are and we want to work with those interested in the healing power of a dog.”