New ‘Animal Friends’ Program Brings Wags + Smiles

Six furry friends marched through the doors of Friendship Circle’s Meer Family Friendship Center on Thursday and right into the hearts of all who met them.

The therapy dogs and their handlers visited the West Bloomfield center for the first session of a new pilot program called “Animal Friends” – the first of its kind at Friendship Circle.

“It is a six-week-long program that seeks to give our participants hands-on interaction experience with animals, educate them about humane animal treatment and pet care and allow them to benefit from the therapeutic aspects of animal interactions,” said Jenna Simard, the Friendship Circle’s special needs program coordinator.

The mental and physical benefits of animal companionship are well-documented. Scientific studies have shown therapy animals can lower blood pressure, improve heart health and aid in relaxation. For people with special needs, these furry friends help to boost socialization, encourage communication and even assist in overcoming speech and emotional disabilities.

Thursday’s visiting canine companions had a profound effect on the center’s participants and volunteer helpers, who took turns reading to the dogs, walking them and feeding them.

There was no fear or trepidation, just smiles, hugs and lots and lots of kisses. And more than a few dog treats, too.

“How many pugs should I get?” asked Clayton, who took a liking to Pearl, a blind pug who does much of her therapy work at Henry Ford Hospital West Bloomfield. “Two! I want two of them.”

When asked what she liked most about the dogs, Lauren exclaimed: “Cuddly! They’re cuddly!”


Friendship Circle participants, volunteers and staff weren’t the only ones moved by these new bonds forged in fur.

“Look at how special this is,” said Karen Gasior with Therapy Dogs International, who brought her black lab Maizey — a former leader dog who switched to therapy work a couple years ago. “She brings smiles and tears of joy. She’s always happy cheering other people up – that’s the best.”

Visiting with special-needs children was a first for most of the dogs, who spend much of their time at hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

This was true for Lucy, a toy poodle who is relatively new to this line of work. Her handler, Ann Scikorski with Mid-Michigan Therapy Dogs, says she and Lucy graduated from their training program last May.

“We wanted to do something with kids … well, I did anyway,” she said with a smile.

This was the first time Casey, a rescued black lab mix, had worked with kids, said her handlers Christine and Dennis Sweers with Mid-Michigan Therapy Dogs. “She was abandoned and took up residence on our porch,” Christine Sweers said. So, she and her husband, Dennis, gave Casey a home and a purpose that fits her personality.

“Casey is a love-motivated dog,” she said.


Thursday’s session was just the beginning. There’s so much more in store for “Animal Friends” participants.

“Throughout the six weeks, we will have a number of guest speakers from animal rescues and veterinary offices,” said Simard. “Participants will interact with the animals in our own pet store and we will see an exotic animal presentation.

“The program is already full,” she said, when asked how interested families might register. But, “we’ll do another one next year!”

Click here to learn more about Friendship Circle’s other exciting programs from trips to sports and more.

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