life coach for women, midlife, empty nest, coach, next act, coaching for women
12
Sep
2016

Founding Bright Spot Therapy Dogs: Cynthia’s Story

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28hinkley350dpiAfter her daughters left for college, Cynthia knew she needed to find work that provided her renewed meaning and fulfillment. Having felt the power of dogs to soothe the losses of her brother and her mother, Cynthia founded a nonprofit that provides animal-assisted therapy wherever it is needed.

Tell us a little about your background…

I was raised in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford. We were a family of five, my mother and father, sister and brother, along with several pets including a big white rabbit, three cats, two black Standard Poodles, two canaries, and two pet mice. Dogs were always my favorite pets. I can remember every dog I’ve had—many through the years.

From the time I was seven years old, I spent every summer living on a lake in Maine on 200 acres of woodland that looked to the West and the White Mountains in the distance. The trip took a full day back in those days, on back roads most of the way; the Mass Pike and other major highways had not yet been built. Through the years as they were constructed, detours made for an equally long ride to what seemed to me to be paradise. We packed up both family station wagons—filled with all necessary supplies for the entire summer, including, of course, our pets.

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My childhood summers in Maine were idyllic. My father had paths carved throughout the 200 acres and we gave each path a special name. My mother painted the name of each trail on a piece of barked wood and these were on each of the trailheads. My father led us on a trail walk each day, with the dogs always following along beside us. Mother knew the names of many of the wildflowers that grew on the woodland floor and the birds that abounded in the wild. Those she couldn’t identify, we looked up together, using the many wildflower and bird books we kept on the bookshelf in the cabin.

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With my sister Melissa and my brother Bobby, 1954

As a family, we took up the game of golf, and headed to the golf course every morning while the sun was still low on our side of the lake. Nights and rainy days, we played board games; Monopoly was my favorite. My grandparents, my mother’s father and stepmother, spent an entire month at the lake with us each summer. They were Scottish immigrants who had settled in Scotia, New York, in the early 1900s. Each afternoon, my grandmother would serve us afternoon tea, a Scottish tradition, and I’d sit for hours listening to my grandfather tell stories about the old days in Scotland. While we all hung out on the beach, my grandmother taught me how to knit when I was just eight years old—something I still do today.

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Afternoon tea on the beach: My grandparents with my mother and our poodles, Talley and Cy (1959)

I developed a strong love of Maine, which in the 1950s was literally undiscovered by folks from Boston who today flock there in droves, clogging the interstates daily during the summer months. I lived for the two months we spent at the lake. As soon as school ended in June, we headed to the lake and remained there—without a phone or any of today’s electronics now considered necessities—until the day after Labor Day. Through the years, my parents built a second, then third cabin, each overlooking the lake and the mountains beyond. In time, my three daughters got to enjoy the peace and beauty of nature that I enjoyed as a child.

Elmira College graduation 1968

I received a liberal arts degree from Elmira College and a Masters in Education from the University of Hartford. My career path took many twists and turns. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, I taught grades 2-6 in Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts. In the ‘80s, our three daughters were born in Hanover, NH, where we lived for five years while my husband did his surgical residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. When my husband’s residency was completed, we moved to Westhampton, Massachusetts, where he joined a private general surgery practice in Northampton, Massachusetts. Here, I immersed myself in volunteering in our daughters’ elementary school and was soon elected to the School Committee and later to the School Building Committee.

Our three daughters with our Irish Setters, Breezy and DD and our English Setter Beatrice (also my first therapy dog)

Our three daughters with our Irish Setters, Breezy and DD and our English Setter Beatrice (also my first therapy dog)

In the mid ‘90s, I took a real estate course at the suggestion of my father who invested in real estate as a hobby. I found the course so interesting that I took the exam for my real estate license and became a realtor. I think my interest in real estate stems from my years as a child going with my father to check out possible investment properties in Maine. I was fascinated by these adventures that often led to purchases, sometimes not. As a real estate professional, I enjoyed studying the market and working with clients to negotiate their purchases, but I disliked the unpredictability of the hours I worked—any time, any day. After nine years, I left real estate to pursue a career in non-profit fundraising and development.

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With Phoebe and Trudi

By the time I started working in fundraising and development, our three daughters, born within a 36-month period, were off to college. A job in this field landed in my lap. I was to work in the area of alumni relations at the private school our daughters attended for their middle school years. I knew many of the new alumni well and worked at establishing their continued interest in the school. It was part time, at first, then moved to full time with no end to the workday, finding me still in the office at 7:00 p.m. and holding events on the weekends. I was working at something that didn’t pull at my heartstrings. That was the missing piece in much of the work I had done. I felt a sense of fulfillment as a teacher helping young children succeed in school, but when I returned to teaching for a brief period once all three of our daughters were in school full-time, education had changed dramatically. There was so much required paperwork, so many meetings, making less time to work directly with the students. I longed to feel an attachment to what I did in my work life. I needed to feel I was doing something to help others in order to have a sense of fulfillment, and I needed to be in control of my work life. I needed to be the one in charge.

Dogs have always been an important part of my life. My dogs have provided comfort and companionship in times of illness and tragedy. When I was eleven years old, my 16-year-old brother committed suicide, forever changing our lives. I idolized my big brother. He taught me to ride my two-wheeler and we biked to school together, he in the sixth grade and I in kindergarten. He taught me to swim at the lake and saved me from drowning when I ventured out too far. Back in 1958, there were no child psychologists in the schools to help in such a situation. It was back to business as usual. Back to school and into routine.

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My dad with Talley

Yet, I was devastated, my world as I had known it had come to an end. I didn’t want my classmates to ask me questions or to tell me how sorry they felt. It was my black Standard Poodle Talley who comforted me in my time of need. In the days following my brother’s funeral, he didn’t leave my side. Once back at school, he would wait by the door for me until I came home and remained with me until bedtime when he lay by my bed at night. He offered the unconditional love I needed then. Just to be able to sit quietly—no words spoken—just hugging this gentle, non-judgmental dog. Talley saved me, making it possible for me in time to overcome my loss. My love for dogs took on a deeper meaning through this experience that sowed the seeds that would years later be my life’s calling.

Beatrice, my first therapy dog

Beatrice, my first therapy dog

In 1992, it was my dog Beatrice who brought me great comfort when my mother died unexpectedly. I was deeply distraught and needed to do something to fill the void brought on by my mother’s death. With Beatrice, I began my work with therapy dogs. I wanted to share her special love and companionship with others in need. Back in the early ‘90s, visiting with a therapy dog in healthcare or educational environments was rare in the New England area, but I was determined to get us in the door of a new nursing home that recently opened not far from where we lived. After surmounting initial resistance from the activities director in charge of special programs, Beatrice and I began our volunteer visits. She was an immediate hit.

Beatrice was a sweet, gentle English Setter that the residents and staff adored. They all looked forward to her Friday afternoon visits that lasted a period of nine years until her death from brain cancer at the age of eleven. While Beatrice was brightening the lives of many at the nursing home, I saw firsthand how powerful human-canine interaction can be. When Beatrice died, I was both devastated and at a loss to continue the meaningful work she and I started together. This was work I knew must continue. I accepted my breeder’s gift of another dog.

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Beatrice visiting the nursing home during the holidays

With my new dog Trudi, I continued visiting the residents at the nursing home and was asked by the chaplain at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts, to establish a therapy dog program there. I was hooked and I wanted to spread the power of the human-canine bond to other healthcare environments and wherever therapy dogs could be of help. For the past nine years, I had witnessed Beatrice brightening the days of folks who were sad or lonely, who needed a special friend to talk to, the companionship of a friendly dog like the beloved dogs they had when they were younger. Beatrice had been “their dog” every Friday afternoon. She brought smiles to the faces of many during her time.

It took two years to establish the program at the hospital. Many meetings were held, policies and procedures written, and rewritten. Finally patients in the hospital were enjoying the canine companionship of Trudi as she made her rounds on the psychiatric floor and medical floor of the hospital. Our work was just beginning.

 

When did you start to think about making a change?

Although I found all of my work through the years interesting in one respect or another, I never found it to be fulfilling. When I hit my 50s, I knew I needed more. As a fundraising and development officer at a private school, I attended monthly meetings of Women in Philanthropy. It was at one of these meetings, in 2003, that I met Barbara Reinhold, speaker for the luncheon meeting. At the time, Barbara was director of both the Career Development Office and Executive Education for Women at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and she had recently published her book Free to Succeed: Designing the Life You Want in Today’s Free Agent Economy, which was the subject of her talk. I was mesmerized.

What Barbara was saying resonated with me. I knew at that moment that I needed to design the work life that I wanted. I needed to be doing work that made me feel fulfilled. This was the “aha” moment. It was clear to me that what I loved doing was bringing happiness to those in need through the human-canine bond. Barbara mentioned to the audience of women that in addition to counseling students at Smith on their career paths, she runs her private career and executive coaching practice in Northampton and is an interactional motivational speaker.

After the meeting, I read Barbara’s book from cover to cover and contacted her to set a time for a private session. This proved to be the best money I ever spent. I remember telling Barbara that I wanted to keep working at something I love for as long as I could. I firmly believe it’s healthy for the mind and body. To this, she asked, “Well then, do you see yourself working at your current job for as long as you can?” This put things in clear perspective for me. Of course, the answer was no. I came out of my first session feeling empowered and with a clear vision of what I intended to do. I had a recording of our session in hand and homework—to come back with an outline of what I plan to do to achieve my goal.

At the next session, we discussed my outline together. Barbara voiced amazement at the clarity of my plan and vision, saying it usually takes people two years to work through a plan like this. We both agreed, I was well on my way. I immediately set forth to put my plan to create a fulfilling future in action by taking step one: I resigned from my current job.

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What is your next act?

In 2004, at the age of 57, I founded Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting wellness in people of all ages through human-canine interaction. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs trains and certifies dogs and their handlers in the skills and techniques needed to make meaningful visits to people wherever therapy dogs can be of help and works with facilities in creating programs incorporating animal-assisted therapy. Community outreach is an avenue I use to spread the good work of our trained therapy dogs teams, giving as many as 24 talks and presentations annually. What started as a one-person, one-dog operation, visiting two healthcare facilities in western Massachusetts, has developed into over 200 active therapy dog teams visiting hospitals, mental health facilities, Alzheimer’s units, hospice care, assisted living facilities, schools, libraries, and specialized programs for children, throughout New England—with requests for therapy dog visitors coming from over 140 healthcare and educational facilities.

King in the Reading Buddy program

King in the Reading Buddy program

Our literacy initiative using our specially trained Reading Buddy dogs in elementary schools, middle schools, and now high schools to work in one-on-one sessions with low performing students has improved test scores to back up the positive impact the dogs have on each child. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs has been most fortunate to receive funding over a three-year period from the Charter Oak Foundation to assist with the development of this program and to enable us to create our Bright Spot Therapy Dogs Reading Buddy Book Series. In addition, colleges and universities now recognize the therapeutic effect dogs have on students and are requesting our therapy dogs on campus during mid-term and final exams.

In 2001, I was awarded the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) President’s Award for outstanding leadership in bringing comfort to elderly who have little contact with the outside world, through visits from therapy dogs. And, in 2010, I received the Massachusetts Association of Realtors Good Neighbor Award for helping people of all ages in the community through the human-canine bond. My public speaking engagements started as the keynote speaker at the MSPCA Happy Endings Gala. My subject, of course, was the meaningful work of therapy dogs. In 2013, I spoke at the Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference on wellness through human-canine interaction, and in 2014, I was a presenter at the Community Organizations Active in Disaster Summit Conference, talking about taking Bright Spot Therapy Dogs to Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

Speaking at the Women's Leadership Conference

Speaking at the Women’s Leadership Conference

What has brought me the most joy and satisfaction in receiving these honors and opportunities to speak is that today the importance of the human-canine bond is being seen as therapeutic and is being taken seriously. I love my work because dogs have been a central part of my life since early childhood and now I watch them help others in need of the unconditional love and companionship only a dog can give. I experience great joy when inspiring others to become involved in this meaningful work.

Social media has played a big part in spreading the word about my work with therapy dogs. For quite some time, I tossed around the idea of starting a blog about my work and was encouraged by friends who knew I had ambitions of writing a book on this topic in the future. My son-in-law, who is very savvy with computers and has a dog-centered blog of his own called Fido Loves, offered to get the blog set up for me. We even brainstormed together and came up with the name Say Hello Spot. Say Hello is a command given to a therapy dog when visiting; Spot is a common name for a dog; and my English Setters are spotted. The name stuck.

Julia visiting residents at the nursing home

Julia visiting residents at the nursing home

 

In December 2010, my sweet therapy dog Julia died suddenly of cancer, and that very day I wrote my first post to honor her memory. Today, Say Hello Spot: Living and Working with Therapy Dogs has over 60,000 loyal followers who read my posts, written three to four times a week, recounting my visits with my therapy dogs and our life at home in the country. A Facebook page for Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. followed and my posts from Say Hello Spot are shared to Facebook and Twitter. I hear from people all over the world who either make visits with their own therapy dogs or who are interested in becoming involved with this meaningful work. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs began to see a dramatic increase in requests for training and certifying with our organization. This increase is a direct result of our presence on social media. People started coming from all over New England. As long as they could drive to us to receive their training and evaluation, they were coming.

Newly trained teams having their on-site evaluations

Newly trained teams having their on-site evaluations

Back in 2003 when I met with Barbara Reinhold, in addition to discussing the founding of my therapy dog organization, I told her that I wanted to write a book about this meaningful work. Again, she gave me some valuable advice I am so glad I followed: “You are attempting to undertake two very involved and demanding things,” she said. “Start by founding your non-profit, continue to build your credentials as a leader in the field, do your own visiting with your dogs and take notes along the way. Jot meaningful happenings down on 3×5 index cards and drop the cards into a file marked BOOK. Your knowledge will grow, and when you are ready, write the book. It will be so much richer.”

By 2011, five of my dogs had been therapy dogs and together we had made over 30,000 visits to nursing homes, hospitals, psychiatric facilities, Alzheimer’s units, hospice patients, and were just piloting our children’s reading-to-a dog program in an elementary school. The time seemed right. My mind was brimming with stories of our visits, of the long-term relationships with many folks we visited week after week. What I had witnessed between my dogs and the people they visited was magical. I saw the therapeutic power of the human-canine bond at work with every visit I made. I was compelled to put these treasured events on paper.

My bookshelf

My bookshelf

At the suggestion of my eldest daughter, a gifted writer herself, I joined a writing group at our local library and found in this group a welcoming and supportive community of writers who encouraged me to move forward with my project. The writing began. Susan Stinson, facilitator of the group and author of several books, became my mentor who shepherded me through the first draft of my book. The writing just streamed out of my head very quickly. I had a fear of forgetting many of the magical moments I had witnessed. I wanted to get them written down and to share them with others before I forgot them.

The first draft took exactly one year. I had regular meetings with Susan, at which I was accountable to produce 50 completed pages. This is what kept the pace going. Once the stories were written down, I felt a sense of relief. I found that the more I wrote, the easier the words flowed. I often posted daily on my blog and began writing therapy dog articles for the monthly magazine published by The English Setter Club of America. This led to a request for me to write an article for the American Kennel Club Gazette. In January 2016, after many revisions and a fine-tuning with the help of my talented editor Celia Jeffries, I completed the book. I am currently seeking a literary agent to represent my memoir, Therapy Dogs: Doing What Comes Naturally.

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Why did you choose this next act?  

I credit my mother for being the reason I ended up choosing a career in community service revolving around dogs. She was an animal lover who taught me at a young age to love, care for, and respect animals of all kinds. By her example, I learned to give back to the community in which I live. As a young child, I watched in awe and with growing respect as she eagerly took on obligations such as Girl Scout leader, PTO president, women’s club president, hospital volunteer, church choir member, and Sunday school teacher. When asked to help, she was there. I still have vivid memories of her presiding over a women’s club meeting and singing in a PTO production of Oklahoma.

My parents on their wedding day, 1939

My parents on their wedding day, 1939

My father, too, had a hand in shaping my future career plan. He instilled in me at an early age that I could be and do anything I set my mind to by persevering and working hard. His parents were Swedish immigrants who came to America in the late 1800s, like many others, to build a better life for themselves and their family. Through their hard work and perseverance, they did just that. My father took over the reins of the printing company his father started in 1905. I saw in him a leader, a person who took charge. He had the respect of all who worked for him. They felt his kind, fair hand in the running of the workplace. I am forever grateful for the examples they set for me.

Lily with students at Bay Path University, providing stress relief during finals

Lily with students at Bay Path University, providing stress relief during finals

 

How hard was it to take the plunge?

By the time I took the plunge, I had worked with therapy dogs for twelve years. I loved what I was doing, saw that requests for therapy dog visits were beginning to grow, and recognized that this was too important not to involve more people. The need was there for an organization that would work with both volunteers and facilities and I wanted to be the one to do it. The plunge was driven by my commitment to spread the meaningful work of therapy dogs to more healthcare environments and to people of all ages.

My past careers in education, real estate, and non-profit fundraising/development proved invaluable to my reinvention. I have drawn on skills from each, and continue to do so today. They were the best education in preparing me to found and run my own registered 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization.

On the set of Mass Appeal, WWLP Channel 22 TV

On the set of Mass Appeal, WWLP Channel 22 TV

 

How supportive were your family and friends?

My husband supported my decision 100%. In my case, I was founding a non-profit organization driven by volunteers. It would be many years before I, as executive director, would draw a salary. Although I was walking away from an excellent salary, with our daughters now finished with college and living and working on their on, we were able to manage on my husband’s income alone. I was very fortunate in this respect that afforded me the seed money needed to move forward with establishing Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc.

 

My husband and our daughter Eve at the lake, 1985

My husband and our daughter Eve at the lake, 1985

 

What challenges did you encounter?

Staying on top of our rapid growth and all that entails is often an everyday challenge. With growth, both in donors and in volunteers, our income has grown, and so have our expenses. Once we went over the $25,000 income threshold, Bright Spot was required to file tax returns, although, as a non-profit, no taxes are due.

Liability insurance in the state of Massachusetts is difficult to obtain for any business dealing with dogs. I have to work closely with our business manager (a dedicated volunteer and Board member), our accountant, and our insurance agent.

My desk: Nature out of my window and dogs at my feet -- the perfect work environment

My desk: Nature out of my window and dogs at my feet — the perfect work environment

Working out of a home office offers great pluses—like having my dogs surround my desk while I work and being able to make my own work schedule, which affords me the flexibility to work out at the YMCA, bike, kayak, and hike with the dogs and my friends. The major downside for me is having no end to my workday. It’s not unusual for me to be working on donor thank you letters or writing a grant at 9:00 at night. I’m constantly trying to get myself to shut down at a reasonable time and end the day with a walk (in good weather) or a class at the YMCA in the winter. Late afternoons, I head to the Y for a one-hour spin class that completely clears my head. Afterward, I head home, shower, have dinner, and relax. This is my goal for each day of the week. Weekends, too, I’m often finishing work for Bright Spot.

I’m trying to craft a more all around healthy work-play program for myself. Currently, I am the sole salaried employee; all other key management roles are held by dedicated members of our Board of Directors, who volunteer countless hours of their time to maintain and grow Bright Spot. When we lose one of these key members, as we do from time to time, it falls back to me to come up with a solution and to carry on.

Board members Ern Damon and Patti Tibbetts work on our annual appeal mailing

Board members Ern Damon and Patti Tibbetts work on our annual appeal mailing

I have never for one minute regretted my decision to leave a secure career to found Bright Spot Therapy Dogs. I work very hard, and sometimes seven days a week, but the difference is that I love what I do. If I had to name one thing that I miss, I’d have to say my weekly office meeting where our department met together as a team to discuss work accomplished over the past week and plans for the upcoming week, and work out problems together. Brainstorming is such an invaluable tool. I miss having office staff to hold brainstorming sessions—if needed—at the drop of a hat.

Michelle Karb and her therapy dog Coco visiting a friend in the nursing home

Michelle Karb and her therapy dog Coco visiting a friend in the nursing home

 

Were there times when you thought about giving up?  

Truthfully, there are times when I become so overwhelmed by the magnitude of my creation that I ask myself, “My gosh, what have I done?” When I started, I really had no idea how far this would go. I didn’t even think about that, I just knew I needed to do it. Things took off very quickly, growing slowly, at first, but as we grew, and word spread, the growth rate accelerated, often running ahead of me.

Two major things keep me going. The people who receive our visits are helped so much by our dogs (the hospice patient in her final days of life comforted by my sweet dog lying alongside her, his head resting gently on her chest; the terribly distraught patient on the psychiatric unit who hung to my dog for support and sobbed into her fur; the nursing home residents waiting each Friday for “their dog” to make rounds), I can’t let them down. And, the hundreds of volunteers we have now trained and certify annually through Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, I can’t leave them without an organization representing them. This meaningful work and the donors, sponsors, and foundations that support us cannot be let down. I have learned to stop, take a deep breath, and get some rest. I hit my “reset” button and wake up the next morning knowing I can’t imagine my life, at this point in time, not being executive director of the organization that I founded.

Never once did I think, I can’t do this. When we have a setback, I put one foot in front of the other and look for a solution to the problem. My positive attitude has served me well. I have learned that my father was right. I can be and do anything I set my mind to by persevering and working hard.

Volunteers in Newtown, CT

Volunteers in Newtown, CT

 

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?

Although I often envied those who graduated from college with a definite career path in mind and walked that path throughout their entire work life, I don’t regret my many detours. I think the twists and turns I traveled were all necessary for me. I love to explore new things, and learn something new and worthwhile with every door I open. I’ve come to realize that I’m simply not that person who can stay on track until the end of my time.

 

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?

Absolutely go for it! Don’t waste the rest of your life stuck in something you don’t love. If you feel passionate about what it is you want to do, the possibilities are endless. I firmly believe it’s never too late to try something new.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. You’ll be surprised how much people are willing to help one another. Surround yourself with people who believe in your mission and who can bring value to the table. The people who make up the Bright Spot Therapy Dogs Board of Directors are certified Bright Spot volunteers themselves visiting with their dog(s) in a myriad of environments. They are business people in the community – a bank vice president, an owner of an information technology business, a middle school principal, a retired high school English teacher, a graphic designer. They offer valuable counsel to the every day running of the organization and to the development of our strategic plan for the future.

Board member Kevin Russell and his therapy dogs Niles and Carber visit a hospice patient in her home

Board member Kevin Russell and his therapy dogs Niles and Carber visit a hospice patient in her home

Networking is an extremely valuable tool. Aside from having Barbara Reinhold as my initial mentor in the early days, I network with people in fundraising/development, in healthcare and education, with dog trainers, and those running therapy dog organizations in other parts of the country. For some people, this is not easy. I find mingling – making small talk – hard to do. But, bottom line, it’s a necessity. Everything I have learned and everyone I have met has been the direct result of networking. Each time I attend a conference or large event, I give myself a little pep talk ahead of time. My inner voice says, “Just get out there and do it!” And, it never fails, on my drive home, I tell my inner voice, “You were right.” I’ve always met someone or learned something new that can be of help to me and the work I do. And, just like anything, the art of networking does get easier, if you do it enough.

The Internet is a great way to communicate with people at a distance, but whenever possible, I set up a face-to-face meeting for coffee at a local café. Some advice is free, but don’t expect it all to be, nor should it be. People need to be paid for their expertise. I can’t say for certain if I would have taken the plunge back in 2004 without my invaluable sessions with Barbara Reinhold. All I needed were two sessions with her—money well spent. I hired my mentor Susan Stinson who got me through the first draft of my book, and I paid Celia Jeffries, my talented editor who helped me polish my final manuscript to send off to literary agents.

 

Speaking at the Westhampton Public Library

Speaking at the Westhampton Public Library

 

What advice do you have for would-be therapy dog handlers?

The use of certified therapy dogs in all walks of life is advancing rapidly. When I speak with college students planning their careers, I help them realize the many opportunities that exist where therapy dogs can be of help building an atmosphere of wellness among people of all ages. Today, therapy dogs are seen in business, as well as in healthcare and education.

That said, we all think our dogs are wonderful—but not all dogs make good therapy dogs. A therapy dog must have a friendly, outgoing personality. She must enjoy interacting with strangers and going into unknown places. This can be challenging and often stressful for many dogs, but not for a dog with the right temperament for therapy dog work. This is the pre-requisite we look for when considering a dog for training and certification with Bright Spot. If a dog is shy, aggressive, or overly exuberant, she cannot be considered for this type of activity. We then look to see that the dog is well trained in basic obedience skills (aka good manners). She must respond to the commands of sit, stay, down, come, heel, and leave it—all basics taught in beginner obedience classes. In addition, the dog must be at least one year old and, if adopted, must have lived with her new owner for at least one year. At Bright Spot, we are certifying both the handler and the dog. Both ends of the lead are important and must work in sync as a team. We look for a person who enjoys doing things with his dog, has a strong desire to share his special dog with people in need, and is eager to learn the skills and techniques necessary to work as a therapy dog team.

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One of our therapy dog training classes

When asked where to get a dog certified, if a person lives in New England, I encourage him to make the trip to our home base in Northampton, Massachusetts, for training and on-site evaluation with Bright Spot. We have teams training with us from Maine to Connecticut. For inquiries coming from outside the New England area, I strongly suggest they refer to the American Kennel Club (AKC) list of approved therapy dog organizations in the United States. Bright Spot Therapy Dogs is proud to be one of the first therapy dog organizations to meet the requirements of the AKC and have its name placed on this list. The list has since grown and therapy dog organizations in most areas of the United States appear on the list. This list can be found on the AKC website.

Our trainers are all Bright Spot volunteers themselves and have had years of experience visiting in a variety of healthcare and educational environments, enabling them to be well-versed in the skills and techniques required for making successful visits. I recommend that a person inquire as to the credentials of the trainer teaching the therapy dog class. An excellent obedience trainer, rally, or agility trainer, doesn’t necessarily make a good therapy dog trainer. With today’s growing popularity of therapy dogs, there’s a lot of misinformation floating about on the Internet. Like any subject, check credentials.

For anyone interested in learning about canine behavior and training, I highly recommend reading any book written by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. My favorite, The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, is a must read for those who want to develop a special relationship with their dog. McConnell has written a number of booklets on training and behavior and an excellent book titled Family Friendly Dog Training: A Six Week Program for You and Your Dog.

 

Volunteer visiting veterans at the Soldiers Home

Volunteer visiting veterans at the Soldiers Home

 

What about resources for would-be writers?

I attend the Write Angles Writers’ Conference at Mount Holyoke College each fall, listening to panel discussions by published authors and networking with literary agents, as well as other conference attendees. The Bay Path University Writers’ Day, held semi-annually, is another worthwhile conference I attend. Books that helped me craft my memoir were You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by Lee Gutkind and Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. In addition, I read, read, read memoirs written by others. Not only reading them for their fascinating content, but also carefully examining the techniques they employed in writing their stories.

One memoir in particular sticks in my mind, Kate Whouley’s Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia, in which she recounts her relationship with her mother who was declining, and subsequently died, from Alzheimer’s disease. I felt so close to her words, having spent years visiting Alzheimer’s patients with my dogs and talking with patients’ loved ones. It’s one of those books you fall in love with because you can relate so well to it.

Board members Diane Houston and Nancy Friedman at our info booth at Barnes & Noble "Fun Day with Dogs"

Board members Diane Houston and Nancy Friedman at our info booth at Barnes & Noble “Fun Day with Dogs”

 

What’s next for you?

I see myself as the executive director of Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc. for another six years. At that point, the organization will be in its eighteenth year and I will be 75 years old. New leadership is the life breath of an organization and it will be time for a change. I hope to leave Bright Spot positioned as the leading therapy dog organization in New England and able to hire staff to handle the “jobs” currently carried out by dedicated Board members. To that end, our strategic focus committee is examining ways to be prepared to offer a competitive salary to the executive director and to hire an administrative assistant and a business manager.

I am certain there is more. While I look for a literary agent for my completed memoir, Therapy Dogs: Doing What Comes Naturally, I am thinking about my next book. I have a few ideas rolling around in my head. As I continue to travel my uneven path, a detour will come my way. Dogs, of course, will be involved, no matter which turn I take.

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Contact Cynthia J. Hinckley at cynthia@bright-spot.org

Founder and Executive Director, Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, Inc.

Website

Say Hello Spot Blog

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Twitter: @SayHelloSpot

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11 Responses

  1. Hi Cynthia,
    I was so excited to see this story with you and your dogs of Bright Spot. I’m looking forward to be reading your book when it’s published. I can certainly identify with the love your feel for your therapy dog work. It does take a certain type of dog. Louie and I are off to do some therapy dog work this week. I can’t wait to see the smiles! This was a great article. Thanks for sharing your Next Act Story.

    1. Yay! Hi Lori! Small world… we dog people certainly do find each other! So glad you and Louie are doing therapy dog work. Louie is perfect for this job! Can’t wait to read about some of his visits. Enjoy making people happy!

    1. Hi Marie – Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I love sitting back at the end of a day with a glass of wine and reading Helene’s latest interview. I find each one unique and inspiring and enjoy checking out each of their websites. I’ve added a lot of new people to my contacts base this way. I’m glad you included a link to your post “3 Step Guide to Weekly Meal Planning.” I’m heading over there now to read it!

    1. Hi Anna – I’m always delighted to strike a note with non-dog people. Through the years, my therapy dogs have won over the hearts of many people who on our first visit said, “I don’t really care for dogs, but come in anyway.” For one such person, a hospice patient we visited every week for seven months, my therapy dog James became her best friend laying alongside her in her bed, his head resting on her chest for hours at a time. So glad you now see canines in a different light.

    1. Haralee – thank you for reading my story. Therapy Dog work truly is a win-win for all involved. Watching my dog elicit memories in an Alzheimer’s patient, for example, who hadn’t spoken in two years, brings joy beyond belief to loved-ones, to me – and yes, even to my dog (he knows when he’s made someone happy!)

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