Foundation brings dogs to seniors who need a little brightness in their lives

By Caitlin O'Kane

/ CBS News

You may not think of a senior living facility as a lively place where people play. But for one New York City senior living apartment building called the Atria, the seniors often have playtime with some adorable dogs.

The residents get regular visits from The Good Dog Foundation. This organization knows that sometimes all it takes to brighten someone's day is a playful pup. So the foundation brings dogs to visit places like senior living facilities, hospitals and schools were people may need a little extra brightness in their lives.

Bruce Fagin, executive vice president of The Good Dog Foundation, says volunteers can sign up and get their pup trained and certified as a therapy dog through the foundation. "The training runs them through all kinds of simulations about working in a hospital environment or a senior home, working with people who have dementia or kids on the autism spectrum," Fagin explained.

After six hours of training, evaluators determine if each pet is ready to start going on test visits, Fagin said. If they past this last test, the pups become certified therapy dogs and can start making scheduled visits with the foundation. Each of the good dogs wears a blue and orange bandana, signifying they have gone through the Good Dog training.

Owners can certify their pups as therapy dogs through the foundation, so they're ready for any environment. CBS News

The program schedules about 30,000 hours of volunteer time a year, Fagin said. That's a lot of puppy playtime for people who otherwise might not get the chance to enjoy time with a pet.

The program isn't just beneficial to the seniors and hospital patients who get visits — volunteers end up feeling good, too.

Mark Brandt and his dog, Rio, has been volunteering with the program for over a year, and they regularly visit the Atria with the Good Dog Foundation. "It's a great way to give back and it's a great feeling. I get more out of it than the people that she's visiting a lot of times," Brandt said.

Brandt said he first started volunteering with the group because his pup is special and he wanted to share her with others. During last Wednesday's visit to the Atria, Rio was very well behaved and knew how to do everything from sit, to roll over, shake and even stand up on her hind legs for a treat.

But it wasn't just Rio's entertaining tricks that seniors love, it's the calmness they feel when they pet her.

Fagin said dogs can be extremely therapeutic, no matter what you're going through. "The singular mission of the Good Dog Foundation over the past 20 years is to help humans heal from the trauma of disease or disability or disaster," Fagin said. "And our healers are pets. They're mainly dogs and their human handlers."

For many of the seniors they visit, the dogs are a reminder of the love they had for their own pets.

"I'm very fond of dogs, and I really can't have one of my own because I couldn't really take care of it here," an Atria resident named Pat said. "Whenever they come and visit … I enjoy seeing them."

Fellow resident Judith Birsch agreed, seeing the dogs is a good way to connect with pets again when you can't own one yourself. "I've always loved dogs, and I've had dogs," Birsch said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to engage with them again, without having to take care of them."

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The Good Dog Foundation brings pups to people who need a little extra brightness in their lives – like these seniors who live in an assisted living facility. CBS News

For others at the Atria, the visits give them a chance to do something out of their comfort zone. Morrie Goodman wasn't really a dog person and only had one in his life to appease his kids.

Now, Goodman is hoping to learn to love dogs. "I'm expecting to feel more comfortable with the dogs," he said.

The Good Dog doesn't just visit seniors. They have also visited colleges to help relieve students' stress around exam time. And the organization has also partnered with Pace University's Department of Criminal Justice to do work with inmates, Fagin said.

Good Dog volunteers can sign up to visit female inmates who are embarking on a parenting course before they are released from prison. Caring for the dogs is part of the course.

The program is still in the testing phase, Fagin said. The dogs are used to teach female inmates parenting skills before they are reunited with their minor children. "When they go to jail, the severing of the mother-child bond is severe," Fagin said.

"I actually was at a graduation where 14 female prisoners at Westchester County Detention Center had completed the parenting program and were being reunited with their families and children and it was breathtaking," Fagin said.

He recounted one woman speaking about how the therapy dogs calmed her and her fellow inmates. "When they were feeling angry, they were calmed. When they were feeling guilty, their edge was taken off," Fagin said. "That's a common reaction we hear from a variety of different populations."

Fagin said this is why the Good Dog Foundation works. "It's energizing. People throw a ball to a dog, or walk the dog across the room. You see a whole different range of emotions," he said.

Fagin also said the group exists because of two things: volunteers and donors. The Good Dog relies on the "goodness and kindness" in others, Fagin said. He urged people to visit the Good Dog Foundation website to learn how to get involved with the organization.

Thanks to this New York City-based nonprofit, more pups are getting more love – and more hearts in need are being warmed.

First published on December 18, 2018

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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