News & Politics

Meet the Animals Who Bring Comfort to DC Area Schools, Hospitals, and Nursing Homes

Illustration by Britt Spencer.

If you’ve ever known a golden retriever—or any dog, really—you’ll understand how impressive it is to see one ignoring a piece of (buttery, sweet-smelling) French toast resting on his own paw.

But the task appears effortless for Riley, a seven-year veteran of Fidos for Freedom, a Laurel nonprofit that brings therapy dogs to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and other facilities within 75 miles of its headquarters. The animals’ mission is simple: Give comfort and encouragement to those who could use some. (The organization’s name is a reference to the independence these dogs provide.) They don’t take holidays off, either—a few of the dogs will spend Christmas with sick children at Believe in Tomorrow Children’s House at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore.

Riley keeps his composure for a full eight seconds before his owner, Bonnie Luepkes, finally gives the cue that he can scarf down his prize. All 108 of the Fidos therapy dogs have been taught to snub food unless otherwise advised by their handlers, because in places such as hospitals they might encounter stray prescription pills and other dangers at ground level.

Luepkes, a retired teacher, demonstrates Riley’s talents outside Howard County’s Cedar Lane School for special-needs students, where he’s about to visit with children and young adults ages 3 to 21. The dogs are also conditioned not to react to sudden movements, precisely for outings like this one. Most of the Cedar Lane students lack basic motor skills, which means they might startle an ordinary animal—but not Riley or the five other dogs in attendance, including a poodle, a chow mix, and a rottweiler.

The kids enter a wide, central hallway in groups. The dogs—who have come here twice a month since 2009—remain calm. “I saw the benefit almost immediately,” says Cedar Lane principal Paul Owens, who was initially skeptical, thinking the exercise might be more akin to recess than real learning time.

For the kids to participate, their teachers must submit an “individualized education program” goal—a federally mandated benchmark for special-needs students—to work toward with the animals. Some students practice standing and walking, dog at their side. Others aim to master the coordination of a petting motion.

Whatever the objective, Owens says the dogs provide extra motivation. Young people with severe autism, for instance, who might normally resist social activities, willingly take the dogs on walks. Others, according to Owens, are learning to “use augmentative communication [such as communicating by typing on an iPad], and we’ll say, ‘Do you want to touch the dog? Yes or no?’ And they’ll hit ‘yes.’ ”

Fidos for Freedom has more than 200 volunteers, making the 25-year-old organization one of the largest therapy-dog programs in the Washington area.

To become a therapy animal with the group, a dog has to attend four training sessions (held in Laurel every Wednesday and Saturday), pass three of five obedience tests, and meet certain health requirements. Their handlers must take part in two trial therapy visits under the observation of a Fidos volunteer. A mellow temperament is, of course, often a determining factor in the animal’s success, but breed is not. Says Beth Mittleman, a Fidos volunteer since 2001: “We have 215-pound mastiffs and little teeny Yorkies.”

Luepkes took Riley on 47 hours of visits last year. Her first therapy dog, Tucker, died a few months ago, but the highlight of his service was a visit to a 12-year-old with terminal cancer. The boy’s family called Fidos asking if someone could get to the hospital—it was urgent—and Luepkes and another volunteer hopped into the car with their dogs. The boy died shortly thereafter, but Luepkes says the dogs brought some temporary relief to the family.

People who don’t have their own pets can also play roles. The group always needs “puppy raisers,” volunteers who house and help train assistance dogs, because in addition to the therapy visits, Fidos trains companion animals for the hearing-impaired, veterans with PTSD, and people with limited mobility. “Dogless handlers” don’t have their own therapy dogs but volunteer to bring other people’s on visits.

Says Mittleman: “If you love dogs, you can find something to do at Fidos.”

Editorial fellow Philip Garrity can be reached at