The dog is man’s best friend . . .

  — from An Introduction to Dogs, Ogden Nash

American poet Ogden Nash may have popularized it, but “man’s best friend” can be traced to 1789 and King Frederick of Prussia, who considered his Italian greyhounds such dear companions he is buried beside them.

Our affection for pooches hasn’t changed. Online data portal Statista says there are almost 90 million dogs in the US today. Growing numbers of canines are not simply beloved buddies, but trusty assistants.

It’s impossible to describe Tonya Christiansen without using “dog” and “expert.” The owner of Must Love Dogs in Grand Haven fosters and rehabilitates dogs for three rescue groups, and she and her beloved buddy, Talco, are a team certified through Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD).

Christiansen’s love for pups is her passion, and she offers the following descriptions of dogs who serve:

Emotional Support: No special training is necessary for the dog, but a prescription or note from a physician is required for a pet to be designated an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). This designation has been made murky by some who have misused the privilege, and Christensen cautions that a true ESA is a pet who is prescribed by a licensed professional to help with human anxiety, depression, and phobias.

Therapy: Therapy dogs have received extra training and certification and are allowed, with permission, in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools.

Working: Police dogs, drug and cadaver detection dogs, and crisis response dogs are considered working dogs. They often have privileges to enter places other dogs do not.

Service:  Extensive training is required to be certified as a service dog, and these are the only dogs allowed to go everywhere. They provide vital functions for handlers with vision or hearing impairments, diabetes, and those who experience seizures.

East Grand Rapids resident Bill Barkeley had already sculpted a beautiful life out of circumstances others would find daunting. But when he received his service dog, Rilo, in 2018, that life became even more vibrant. Barkeley has Usher Syndrome Type II, which stole his hearing at a young age and has also steadily eroded his vision.

A long-distance runner who has completed the Boston Marathon, Barkeley is a dedicated climber and the first deaf-blind person to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. As an advocate and storyteller, he travels the country for speaking engagements. Rilo, who trained at Guide Dog for the Blind in California, helps him navigate his way onto planes and buses and even around hectic Grand Central Station in New York.

“Rilo is amazing,” says Barkeley’s wife Mary Jane. “As much as she is a service dog, she is also a pet and part of our family.”

Likewise, therapy dog Lady has become a beloved part of the Brunner family. Sick with parvovirus, ear infections, worms, and kennel cough, she was rescued from a “pet and flower” market in China by Doug and Maranda Brunner, who were teaching at Hangzhou International School. Lady now lives with Doug’s parents in Grand Haven. Her sweet, calm demeanor made her the perfect candidate to become a therapy dog. Like Talco, Lady was certified thorough ATD and works with Mary Jane Brunner for the Grand Haven Public Safety department within schools.

“Lady loves to cuddle up with a student and listen to books, have her belly rubbed, and basically give love,” says Brunner. “Students love to have Lady snuggle with them.  Sometimes I walk into a classroom and Lady picks out a student to visit and the teacher will comment to me ‘How did Lady know this student needs her today?’”

When you see a dog wearing a vest or a harness:

  • It’s always best to ask before you pet the animal and remember to speak first to the handler.
  • Sorry, no treats. Only handlers are allowed to give a snack.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Barkeley, who is assisted by Rilo, says he welcomes interest because “it’s the best way to break down barriers.”

Most service animal organizations like Michigan’s Paws With A Cause and Leader Dogs for the Blind have breeding programs to ensure their animals have the right physical and temperamental attributes. Volunteers house breeding dogs, and “puppy raisers” help teach socialization and basic obedience.

If you think your dog would be a great therapy dog – they are friendly and gentle and have a calm demeanor – there are myriad organizations online and varying costs. Talco and Lady, mentioned in this article, were certified through Alliance of Therapy Dogs. ATD provides testing, certification, registration, support, and insurance.