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Pet Therapy – Not Just for the Dogs

Taffy’s ears perk up as soon as the music starts in the Activity Center.

As a therapy dog, Taffy has been temperament tested for the pet therapy program and exposed to different noises, walkers, wheelchairs, canes, hats, children and more. But she has not yet heard a horn.

“This is her first day as a pet therapy dog,” says her owner, Joanmarie King. “She loves the people, but she doesn’t know what to think of the jazz band.”

Joanmarie brought Taffy to the Humane Society of Sarasota County to be screened and trained for pet therapy. HSSC has an active program with almost 100 dogs who have gone through the program. Owners and their dogs go through a four week course before getting to choose the times and locations they would like to visit.

People are often confused about the difference between the type of pet therapy that Taffy does and the work of a service dog or an emotional support dog.

“A therapy dog has special training and can visit schools, assisted living facilities, hospitals, nursing homes and any other companies that invite them in,” says Joanmarie. “An emotional support dog needs a note from a physician to be in public places with their owner, and does not need any training. A service dog is trained extensively and then placed with someone with a specific disability. Service dogs have legal rights to be in public places.”

While the band takes a break, Joanmarie walks around tables at Senior Friendship Centers where she talks about the pet therapy program and Taffy basks in the attention.

“Taffy is a one year old Portuguese Podengo,” she tells a group of people who offer their laps and some head scratches.

“A what?” says Barbara van Arsdale, a visitor at the Center.

Joanmarie laughs. She gets that a lot. Taffy came from a breeder in Connecticut, and got her name from the sweet candy the state is known for. She also competes in agility and obedience, though Joanmarie stresses that any dog can be screened for the program.

“It’s the Humane Society’s way of giving back to the community,” she says. “It’s a true partnership between dog and owner, and people really enjoy getting to see the dogs.”

Ron Scheff is one of them.

“I miss my dogs so much,” he tells Taffy as she gives him a big kiss. “I’m glad you came in today.”

Taffy makes herself comfortable in his lap until the band starts playing again. Her ears perk up, taking in the unfamiliar sounds.

“She still has a lot of things to learn and be exposed to,” says Joanmarie. “But for her first day, she’s doing pretty great.”


The HSSC Pet Therapy Program connects people and their special animals with opportunities to bring comfort, happiness and humane education to a wide range of adults and children throughout Sarasota County.

Therapy dogs are generally confident, calm, friendly, responsive and comfortable in crowds. If you think your dog may qualify, you can have them screened at HSSC and then take a four-week Pet Therapy Training Course. The program provides registration, insurance, visit scheduling/coordination, and support to volunteers and their animals.

For more information, call Ginny Armington, Community Outreach Coordinator at HSSC at 941-955-4131 ext. 114.