by Natalia Radcliffe
They can melt your heart when they come into this world and break it when they pass on. They have the ability to break down walls, and as you look into the depths of their eyes, you feel a connection that transcends superficiality. You feel understood, loved and accepted.
For many people, dogs are light in the midst of what is otherwise darkness. For those struggling with homelessness, a disability, or other challenging situations, dogs can help ease stress and bring back lost confidence.
Dog trainer Guillermo Roa and therapy dog Molly Jo (pictured above) are working together to help people who are dealing with these kinds of difficulties.
Roa is a dog trainer and native Colombian. He came to the United States 20 years ago and decided to start his own dog training business, as he has always had a special connection with dogs. He can sense a dog’s energy, or “feelings,” whether it’s positive or negative, which helps him better understand the dog he is working with.
Molly is a chocolate lab who can understand commands in both English and Spanish and her owner was interested in training her to become a therapy dog. She brought Molly Jo to Roa as a puppy asked him to train her.
While in training, Molly Jo showed the characteristics of being a good therapy dog, so her owner and Roa decided to pursue this path. After training and testing, Roa and Molly Jo became certified.
The two have helped restore hope and light into so many people’s lives through the volunteer work they do. One of those avenues is through visiting homeless shelters. Interacting with Molly Jo helps to bring smiles to people’s faces and can offer the strength to deal with their situations.
“We want to make people feel happy, comfortable and secure,” Roa said.
He talked about one particular homeless shelter resident who had that experience. Roa explained that the man was reserved and quiet, not particularly willing to interact with Molly Joe. However, a connection was ignited when Roa spoke to Molly Joe in Spanish. The man in the shelter was surprised to find out that Molly Joe understood Spanish and it formed a bridge between the two, encouraging the man to walk over to the dog to pet and interact with her.
The interaction he had with her enabled him to trust himself more and regain some of his confidence. This, in turn, helped him to make a fresh start with his life.
Roa and Molly Jo also assist those who have disabilities, such as a man they currently work with who cannot speak, so he uses a computer to communicate. He has learned to tell Molly Jo to come to him, and has even taken her for walks.
Their interaction has improved the man’s confidence, Roa says, and for people with disabilities in general, working with a therapy dog can make them feel happier and more self-assured. What Molly Jo communicates nonverbally is that a disability does not define them; they can still be productive members of society in their own unique way.
The work that Roa and Molly Jo are doing on the East Coast can inspire others nationwide to consider a similar program. The Santa Clarita Valley Homeless Shelter does not specifically have therapeutic pet visits, but small groups of therapy dogs visit the Canyon Country, Newhall and Valencia library branches every month, sitting with children while they read to them. These animals also visit hospitals to bring joy and hope to those who are suffering from injuries or illnesses.
The program extends to College of the Canyons, typically during midterms and finals, offering to reduce the stress faced by students.
“Dogs are all energy,” Roa explained. “The dog takes that energy and makes the person relax.”
In other words, dogs are attuned to people’s emotional needs. Even if you can’t verbally express what you are feeling, a dog understands, and knows the best way to bring a smile to your face.