Shana Horn, 20, and her 4-year-old mini-labradoodle, Rosie, are quite an impressive team.
“Our residents are immediately excited when Rosie enters the room,” said Naomi McDermott, director of social services for the Jewish Home Family. “We are talking pure joy.” A nationally licensed pet therapy team, Shana and Rosie volunteered with the Jewish Home at Rockleigh over the summer.
“Rosie is trained so well that she remembers people,” Ms. McDermott said. “For our residents, the idea that they can touch and hug an animal is something that is often lost in an institutional setting. Rosie gives them the companionship of a pet again.”
Ms. Horn, who lives in Teaneck and is a junior at Yeshiva University, majoring in psychology, and Rosie also worked with the Friendship Circle of Bergen County and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
“When we travel to NYSPI, we take public transit,” Ms. Horn said. “Because Rosie is not a service dog, she was required to travel in a carrier, which added extra stress to both of us.”
Realizing the irony of coming in to the facility stressed — when your job is to provide less stress to those you visit — Ms. Horn decided to do something about it.
“There are many therapy dogs whose work has been limited by these transit laws entirely,” she said. “Larger therapy dogs, such as golden retrievers, can’t fit in a carrier, and therefore can’t use public transit at all.
“I called New Jersey Transit and asked if they could do something voluntarily, but they said, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you,’” she continued. “I mentioned it to a Friendship Circle family who knew someone related to the mayor.” That’s Teaneck’s mayor, Elie Y. Katz. “So I called the mayor, and he said, ‘Great, but I don’t have the authority.’”
He did, however, give her contact information for Loretta Weinberg, the Teaneck Democrat who is the New Jersey State Senate’s majority leader. Not expecting an immediate response — and even less confident that anything could be done about the situation — Ms. Horn emailed Ms. Weinberg, “writing and rewriting the email to make sure I got my point across.”
“I sent it out and she answered it positively,” Ms. Horn said. “This was right after [the violence in] Orlando,” she added, noting that therapy dogs were brought into that city to work with victims’ families.
Ms. Weinberg got in touch with the transit authority on behalf of the therapy team. “They asked for information about the dog, and then I received a letter saying that I’m allowed on all New Jersey transit buses without a carrier,” Ms. Horn said. While her case is considered exceptional, “since anyone can claim that their dog is a therapy dog,” she noted that Ms. Weinberg made it clear that if anybody else has a registered therapy dog and faces a similar problem, “they should reach out for her office, and they will be glad to work it out for them as well.”
“That lovely young woman called my office and made a good case for wanting to change the rules,” Ms. Weinberg wrote in an email. “And in this situation, NJ Transit agreed after we engaged them. It shows the power of one voice raised.
“I think the positive concept of therapy dogs is pretty much accepted,” she added. “In fact, I read one report that the act of petting a dog can actually lower a person’s blood pressure. In any event, I think anyone who is confined in an institution of any kind would be happily distracted by a visit from a fun, cuddly, properly trained animal. So let’s help that to happen as easily as possible.”
Ms. McDermott also clearly is pleased with Ms. Horn’s success.
“What makes Rosie so special is the teamwork between her and Shana,” she said. “By definition, a therapy dog is well trained and follows commands and is therefore very successful at traveling without a crate. We are proud of Shana’s activism in this regard, and wish her great success in expanding the important work of therapy dogs.”
Ms. Horn’s path into pet therapy began with a suggestion from her mother.
“I love animals, and was dead set on becoming a vet,” she said. “Then I went to Israel for a year, hoping to intern for a frum vet to learn the halakhot of being a vet.” She wanted to learn what Jewish law would allow her to do. When she returned, she no longer was sure that she wanted to pursue that path.
Meanwhile, before leaving for Israel, her great-grandmother, then 97, had moved in with the family, “and I became her caretaker,” Ms. Horn said. “My family wanted me to go into geriatrics, but I really was not so sure. I was afraid of loss, so I was pretty much against it.”
For her part, Rosie got on famously with Ms. Horn’s great-grandmother.
“My great-grandmother had to watch the 12 o’clock and 5 o’clock news,” Ms. Horn said. “Rosie figured out her schedule and would go in at other times to play with her.” Her mother, “being an intelligent woman, said I should work at a nursing home and get Rosie certified as a therapy dog.” With Rosie at her side, it wouldn’t be as hard.
Ms. Horn trained Rosie herself, using criteria she found online to become certified by Pet Partners, the nation’s largest national therapy animal registration organization. “You have to pass a test,” she said, noting that the animals must remain calm while testers play with their tails or other parts of their bodies, and they must not become agitated when their human partners walk away. They instead must remain in place until they are told to come. They also have to follow their partners’ commands, walking past food and toys when so instructed.
Ms. Horn pointed out that Pet Partners registers a number of different species, in addition to dogs. (According to the group’s website, these include cats, horses, rabbits, pigs, birds, llamas and alpacas, guinea pigs, and even rats.) “Their activities are meant as chesed,” Ms. Horn said, noting that volunteers cannot accept money.
Ms. Horn, who plans to pursue a career in pet therapy, put Rosie’s new skills into action right away, starting at the Jewish Home. “They were very welcoming,” she said, adding that already she had gone there with the youth group NCSY. Over the summer, however, she not only did pet therapy but also a social work internship.
“Rosie and Shana were often invited into the private space of residents’ rooms, like any family member would be,” Ms. McDermott said. “After a birthday party we had for Rosie, residents asked for days if she had a good time at her party.”
Ms. Horn also has started a new club at Stern, “an alternative therapy club, educating and increasing awareness of alternate means of therapy,” whether dance, sports, music, yoga, or pets. Depending on the funding the club receives, “I have some ideas for events,” she said, such as bringing in professionals to talk about their respective fields.
“I hope to go to graduate school and get a degree in counseling,” Ms. Horn said. From there, she might pursue a PsyD, “and from there incorporate animals into my work.” In the meantime, she will continue as a volunteer.
“The work we do is amazing, and the more we get out there, the better,” she said. “It’s becoming more widely known, but not as much as it can be.”
Pet Partners’ magazine soon will run an article letting other therapy dog teams know they can do what Ms. Horn did, “to encourage them. More therapy teams can do this.”