Originally created 02/28/05

Trainer's dogs bring happiness to elderly



AIKEN - Tessa, a long-haired black German shepherd, can shake hands, will sit on command and is the proud owner of an obedience show title.

But to Jon Ferraris, the 8-year-old canine's impeccable manners are her best attribute.

Tessa's subdued temperament makes her an ideal candidate for Therapy Dogs Inc., a national canine therapy program that puts pooches into nursing homes to boost residents' spirits.

Mr. Ferraris' expertise in canines makes him an ideal candidate for performing therapy work, too. For the 71-year-old Aiken resident who spent 40 years as a dog trainer, reading canines is almost second nature.

Both make their own contribution to the canine therapy program, which has 7,500 members throughout North America.

Tessa pays weekly visits to retirement homes in town, offering affection to lonely and ailing strangers.

Mr. Ferraris screens potential therapy dogs in the area who might join Tessa's ranks.

He has been a backer of the program ever since Tessa became a certified therapy dog five years ago. He decided therapy work was Tessa's calling after he watched her interaction with a cancer-stricken woman who used a wheelchair at an obedience dog show in Charleston.

"Tessa just mellowed out when she came close to her," he said. "She just knew there was something wrong with this woman."

Mr. Ferraris soon realized therapy work was his calling, too.

Two years ago, he became a local tester for the national organization. His job is to determine which dogs pass muster.

Most of the 15 dogs that belong to the local chapter of the national dog therapy program have been certified by Mr. Ferraris.

His three-phase certification process assesses the potential therapy dogs for basic manners and obedience skills; determines whether they enjoy all forms of petting; and evaluates their behavior in hospital and assisted- living facilities surrounded by wheelchairs, crutches and gurneys.

Excessive panting, jumping on people and other forms of erratic behavior disqualify the canines from the program.

For that reason alone, many dogs don't make the cut the first time, often spooked by their new surroundings.

Some dogs never make it.

Knowing tricks is not enough to become a therapy dog, although obedience classes help, Mr. Ferraris said. There is no single breed of dog that is perfect for therapy work, either.

"We've got all breeds, little ones, big ones, boxers, doberman pinschers, cocker spaniels," he said.

Temperament is key, and much of it depends on the dog's handler.

"You can tell almost right away about a dog's temperament," he said. "And 99 percent of the battle is getting the handler to do the right things. It's like with jumping on people: If sometimes they let them and sometimes they don't, you'll never know when the dog's going to jump on a person."

The unpredictable behavior of dogs and their handlers doesn't faze Mr. Ferraris, but the reaction he sees from the elderly residents during the therapy visits never ceases to astonish him.

"It's amazing that so many of the people remember the dogs' names," he said.

Reach Krista Zilizi at (803) 648-1395, ext. 106 or krista.zilizi@augustachronicle.com.

Jon Ferraris

Age: 71

Occupation: Retired salesman

Hobby: Dog training

Community Service: Local canine tester for Therapy Dogs Inc.

Quote: "You can tell almost right away about a dog's temperament. And 99 percent of the battle is getting the handler to do the right things."