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North Hills Monthly

Local Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort in Many Ways

Jun 30, 2016 08:54AM ● By Erica Cebzanov


Therapy dogs Penny, Arianna and Sebastian are able to comfort clients in ways that many humans cannot. 

Penny is a spaniel-border collie mix adopted from Latrobe’s Action for Animals Humane Society. She started accompanying clients from Crisis Center North (CCN), a nonprofit that assists domestic violence victims, to their therapy sessions after a young boy who was reluctant to attend therapy stopped by Executive Director Grace Coleman’s office to visit the dog. Coleman convinced him that he needed to escort Penny to the appointment "because she had a lot to get off her chest.” Coleman said that the boy made more progress in that session than in the prior six months.

Penny uses her sensitive canine nose to diagnose clients, according to Coleman. “If a client is suffering from anxiety, she will sit three feet away from them and look at them. If a client is suffering from depression, she will actually go over and touch them. She will touch their feet and put her head on their knees.” 

After Penny demonstrated her therapeutic abilities, CCN expanded her role by implementing the Canine Court Program, allowing her to accompany victims as they face their perpetrators in magisterial courts. She’s the first shelter dog in Pennsylvania to perform this role, and Allegheny County’s first canine court advocate. District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel and Judge Anthony Saveikis were instrumental in assisting with the program’s launch.

Likewise, Laura Sokolovic, Three Rivers Hospice and Palliative Care’s director of public relations and pet therapy, relies on Arianna, a Rottweiler, and Sebastian, a French mastiff, to motivate patients to share their life experiences. “I encourage residents to talk about their pets—even if they are Alzheimer’s patients,” she said. “Sometimes they can’t remember what they had for lunch, but it gets them talking.” 

Initially, some patients are reluctant to talk in group settings. “By the end, everyone’s laughing and touching the dogs; almost everybody gets a kiss from them,” said Sokolovic. She recalled an instance in which an older man was moved to tears by one of the dogs ‘kissing’ him.

“He said, ‘I can’t remember the last time someone kissed me,’” recalled Sokolovic.

She also distributes stickers featuring the dogs’ paw prints.“What I always tell people with the stickers is, ‘If you are feeling down, look at that sticker, and when you think about Sebastian and Arianna, smile and think of them kissing you, and think about all of the love they brought you, and try to get rid of the bad thoughts,’” explained Sokolovic. The dogs provide grief support to patients’ loved ones during therapy sessions and at memorial services as well.

Both Coleman and Sokolovic noted that their dogs have positive impacts on their colleagues. “It is really great for work morale. It keeps us all going on days when this job can get to you—because this is hospice—but she is the bright spot,” said Three Rivers Hospice Clinical Administrative Assistant Nancy Debb of Arianna. “It’s just very nice to have her here. She’s a nice addition.” 

Sokolovic and her dogs also interact with community members during parades, fundraising events and visits to hospitals and churches. Sokolovic gives presentations at schools about canine safety and therapy dogs, and Sebastian and Arianna are known for their outfits, including many black-and-gold and holiday-themed pieces. 

Penny has volunteered in hospice settings and participated in children’s reading programs as well. Grace Coleman said that Penny also helps to bring the community together toward a common goal of ending domestic violence. For example, Caitlin Cole, who will attend North Allegheny Intermediate High School in the fall, is working toward raising $5,000 for a new service vest for Penny and earning the Girl Scout Silver award. 

“I love dogs and wanted to become involved in an important community service project that involved animals,” she said. “I also believe that domestic violence is very important, but not many younger people are as aware of it as they need to be.”

In order to gain this level of access, the dogs had to complete specialized training, including passing the 10-step American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen evaluation, which focuses on basic obedience, as well as earning additional therapy-dog certifications. Throughout the training, the dogs became comfortable with unfamiliar noises and medical equipment, as well as adjust to spending time apart from their owners. 

Penny’s handlers regularly meet with canine instructor and Certified Veterinary Technician Cheri Herschell to learn to interpret the dog’s behavior. “She just instinctively seems to understand people’s feelings. I think that comes from her quiet personality because she’s able to connect with everybody in a way that a more excitable dog might not be able to,” said Herschell. “That‘s definitely what makes her different.”

For more information about Crisis Center North, call 412-364-5556 or 1-866-782-0911 (toll free) or visit

For more information about Three Rivers Hospice and Palliative Care, a division of Family Home Health Services Inc., call 1-800-282-0306 or visit