BY STEPHANIE WILLIAMS
Everybody at Ontario ARC’s Canandaigua campus is well-acquainted with Albert, a mild-mannered and bashful Boxer turned therapy dog. Bringing delight wherever he goes whether it be to young patients visiting the Autism Center, adult participants in the center’s day programming, or colleagues, Albert receives the very important pup treatment at the area’s premier organization serving the developmentally disabled.
What’s the secret to Albert’s success? Take a moment to look past the other end of Albert’s leash and you’ll be looking right at it. Branchport resident Gail Furst, who leads Ontario ARC’s Pet Connections program, brings a lifetime of experience and love of everything canine to enrich the lives of children, the elderly, and the disabled. Furst says, “[My colleagues] spend their lunch hour in my office, always wanting to learn something new about Albert!”
Furst’s path to obedience training and furthermore pet therapy began while she was leading a support group for women affected by domestic violence based in Ontario and Yates Counties. After seeing first-hand the calming affect a Boxer puppy had on a shy young girl and her mother over 26 years ago, she began immersing herself in obedience training classes and later integrated pet therapy methods into her work in the human services sector.
“I had heard about dogs used as pet therapy but I had never really seen it happen until then,” says Furst, who is passionate about providing high-quality, accessible human care services to rural communities. “It was very real …so I started doing some research and I have never stopped since.”
Furst steadfastly believes that any dog has the potential to become a therapy dog. Through her own obedience and therapy training service, Canine Healers, Furst has brought out the best in hundreds of breeds from boxers and pit bulls to Chihuahuas and greyhounds. She explains that the saying “It’s the deed, not the breed” absolutely applies to pet therapy. Therapy dogs play many roles in human services and they vary depending on whom they serve. Young children are more likely to show up for school when they know that Albert will be there to practice their reading skills with – an established early literacy movement. Therapy dogs give comfort and smiles to those needed extra assistance, it being from a nursing home or Ontario ARC’s services.
What does Furst think we can learn from a dog? “Dogs are spontaneous, they are candid, and they are truthful,” Furst explains her connection to dogs. “They are unconditional. Would that be great to have in people? You know how a dog is feeling just by watching their body language.”
Albert is Furst’s seventh therapy dog and fifth boxer. Furst has previously trained and owned a racing greyhound and English bulldog; it is safe to say her pups past and present are among the luckiest dogs in Yates County. “They are spoiled,” Furst says. “I buy my cars according to whether my dogs and their crates will fit i them. I feed them a holistic, all-natural diet and control their food so they are in good shape all the time.” Today, Albert has the privilege to run free across Furst’s 11-acre property, and even accompanies Furst on canoe paddles.
“I’ve always had dogs in my life,” Furst explains. “I am so grateful to have a job that encompasses all that I enjoy. I have seen a dog bring a smile to a sad face, confidence to an insecure person, and motivation to move ahead.”
For more information about Pet Connections or to register for dog obedience classes, contact Ontario ARC at (585) 394-7500.