- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

EDMOND, Okla. (AP) - When Debbie Lindley began her venture to gather a group of therapy dogs to make visits throughout the community she had no idea it would grow this much this quickly.

In its first year, Love on a Leash made 442 visits to retirement homes and similar places, the Stillwater News Press (http://bit.ly/1OuNhx5 ) reported.

“I get goose bumps just to think about it,” Lindley said. “I think the thing that I never realized is how much I was going to get out of it.”

The group consists of 25 teams (a dog and their owner). Lindley is hoping to recruit more dogs so Love on a Leash can expand their efforts in the coming year.

“So many people want us to come visit,” Lindley said. “We could double what we’re doing. We’re literally having to put on hold the places we can go until we get dogs in and get them trained.”

There are already several places interested in utilizing Love on a Leash such as the library, hospital and Stillwater Public Schools. Lindley said she hopes to be in the schools by October. She already has five teachers interested. Therapy dogs have been shown to enhance academics, confidence and behavior of students.

“We’ve learned that the kids feel less intimidated when they can read to the dogs, they’re encouraged to want to read longer,” Lindley said. “They can see how a dog is sitting quietly and listening to the teacher so it encourages them to want to sit quietly and listen to their teacher.”

The volunteer therapy dog outreach is a ministry of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Anyone with a calm, well-mannered dog is welcome to join. St. Andrew’s provides a therapy dog vest, Love on a Leash T-shirt for the handler and free instruction and guidance for dogs. The instruction process includes an orientation and evaluation and observations of visits.

“We’ve abbreviated it,” Lindley said. “It used to be a very long, drawn out process. But what we need are people to work with their dogs also on their own.”

Each team is asked to make two visits a month and each visit lasts about an hour. Some places, such as the school and hospital, require the dog to be nationally registered. So far, Love on a Leash has 14 registered dogs.

Lindley said dogs don’t need to have professional training or anything above the ordinary, just a well behaved, friendly, healthy dog.

“If a person has the heart to volunteer and has a sweet, lovable dog, those are the two qualifications that I need,” Lindley said.

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Information from: Stillwater News Press, http://www.stwnewspress.com

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