Smiles break out when someone says, “Who let the dogs in?” at The Palace Suites in Kendall.
It’s a twice-monthly occasion when as many as 18 owners at one time with leashed dogs match up with retirees for friendly visits at the retirement community at 11355 SW 84 St.
All were screened to warm up to strangers by Calusa resident Gene Grizzle and associate Teresita Lanza, both specialized in pet therapy as certified by Therapy Dog Inc., a non-profit based in Cheyenne, WY, that offers testers and observers for dogs before their owners volunteer them for group visits.
“Most people are unaware of what’s required to be a therapy dog,” explained Grizzle who has helped identify and shepherd dogs for over eight years.
A cluster of 11 owners and dogs mingled peacefully in The Palace living room during a November group visit — all owners and pooches trained by Grizzle for therapeutic socializing.
When Patty Bauer’s 80-pound golden retriever, “Cooper,” age 10, took a soft seat on a couch with one couple, Patty observed “Cooper’s the perfect height for a therapy dog. People confined to a wheelchair don’t need to bend over to pet him. His head is right at their level.”
Bred from Bichon strains originating in Cuba, a Havanese became a fluffy lapful for Gail Levy’s mother while “Baby,” a Chihuahua tended by Linette Rodriguez, was dressed in a colorful skirt, just for the occasion.
“Therapy dogs are door openers for conversation. Once linked up, a resident will hold the dog and begin describing pets they’ve once loved and cared for,” Grizzle said. “Meanwhile, a handler needs to be able to control their dog, and the dog needs to have the proper temperament, meaning they must exhibit their best behavior,” he added. “All without barking!”
The volunteer groups of owners and dogs at The Palace always meet outside the community before entering “so they can become accustomed to each other,” Grizzle explained. “We have a team leader because dogs instinctively respond to a pack hierarchy. Dogs know to ‘work’ together, not socialize with each other.”
Training therapy dogs is a year-around project for Grizzle who helps The Junior League of Miami test handlers and dogs for group visitations. All undergo Grizzle’s experienced social testing before an initial visit.
“I tweak their ears, their nose and their tail, trying to aggravate them just enough to see how well they behave with a stranger,” said Grizzle who began his own visits with “Blackie,” a mixed Labrador- German Shepherd who died at age 14.
Weathering a typical owner’s grief over the loss of a cherished pet, he decided to return to volunteering his services eight years ago with “Rambo,” a standard poodle, now brought by his wife, Sonia (Martinez) Grizzle on therapy day visits.