“Angel on a Leash: Therapy Dogs and the Lives They Touch”

By David Frei. BowTie Press. $16.95.

How often in life does a scenario offer a huge win for all parties involved? This impassioned narrative by the noted dog authority and former Seattle resident, delivers on all counts for the dog, owner, hospital patient, and, oh, yes, the reader.

Frei, known to most as the voice of the Westminster Kennel Club and National Dog Shows, is also president of Angel on a Leash, a New York-based nonprofit charity that champions working with therapy dogs in health-care facilities, schools, rehabilitation, hospice, extended-care, correctional facilities and crisis intervention.

Angel on a Leash began as a charitable activity for the Westminster Kennel Club at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and has grown to a nationwide organization that now lists 10 partners.

A longtime breeder-owner-handler and judge, Frei talks the talk and walks the walk with his Brittanys and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel certified therapy dogs, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Ronald McDonald House of New York City. 

Here, he details the lessons our dogs teach us, the inspiration and psychological rewards they offer us and the doors they open for us.

“Good therapy dogs are born, not made,” he says. “It is mostly a personality and temperament thing. They don’t have to be a particular breed; a therapy dog can be any breed or mixed breed. While some breeds are inherently better at it than others, it is still an individual thing that is also dependent on the handler.”

Some, he adds, savor the environment around rambunctious kids while others prefer the company of sedate seniors.

Frei details the enthusiasm, smiles and inner action elicited by former Westminster Kennel Club best-in-show winners in hospitals and medical centers to the inspiring responses from young cancer patients to bed-ridden seniors who previously refused to interact with staff for days and weeks. But the bulk of visitations are made by certified therapy dogs owned by common citizens just like you and me.

The success – or lack of it – of the owner-dog team depends on smooth interaction and trust.  “Therapy is about the dog and the patient, not about the handler,” he emphasizes, comparing that to the conformation show ring, where “the best handlers are almost invisible.”

Both dogs and handlers undergo plenty of training and testing before becoming certified.  Because each visit is fraught with new challenges, a handler must be attentive and anticipatory, Frei emphasizes.

The author credits his wife Cheri, who he met in Seattle, as his inspiration for segueing into the therapy-dog world.  At the time they met, she was pursuing a master’s degree in theology at Seattle University, owned a pair of Brittanys, Teigh and Belle, and was working on a thesis on animal-assisted therapy.

Job offers took them to New York City, where Cheri eventually became the Ronald McDonald House chaplain and director of family support in 2006. One of her projects was bringing a therapy-dog program through the doors of the House, naming it Angel on a Leash. The four-legged visitors became an immediate hit, creating a desired family atmosphere for not only the young patients but their families as well.

Finding the perfect niche in life isn’t easy. But this uplifting read affirms that Frei’s respected position and notoriety in the dog-show world along with his reverence for life have enabled him to open doors and make an exhilarating difference in the lives of others.

From patients’ and families megawatt smiles to David and Cheri’s torrents of tears upon the passing of Belle and Teigh, this riveting memoir delivers a spirited realism and rich insight on an always challenging psychological landscape. In the process, it delivers an inspiring lesson of hope and commitment.

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