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Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Love on a Leash

Article and Photo By Justine Parkinson

Nothing compares to the enthusiasm of a loyal canine when you come into a room. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been gone all day or just a few minutes, the energy you are greeted with is as infectious as it is constant. Not everyone is able to own a pet, but through organizations like Love on a Leash the joys and benefits of owning a pet — especially a dog — can be shared.

Love on a Leash is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an avenue for volunteer pet teams to engage in meaningful and productive animal assisted therapy. A therapy animal is a pet that has been trained and certified along with its owner to provide comfort and stress relief to others. The Adirondack chapter of LOAL is led by Gayle Roy Collin and Pat Gallagher.

A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON For more than 20 years, Collin has been a teacher at Cumberland Head Elementary School – part of the Beekmantown Central School District — and an enthusiastic dog owner. Like most elementary educators, her room has a theme and her’s has gone to the dogs. Her love of canine critters serves as a great icebreaker with her students. Nothing warms up a room like a cold wet nose. There was a time when Collin ‘s boxer, Tank, would join her in the classroom. Students who might have been reluctant to participate were soon clamoring to take care of Tank. “They just loved him and he really loved being in class with them,” she explained. “Suddenly students who had been apprehensive about reading out loud were queuing up to read a story to the dog. They just loved it. It provided relaxation for them because the dog didn’t judge them.”

Collin’s idea developed into a district-wide initiative financed by an Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) grant. Superintendent Dan Mannix commented, “It’s just a really great program. My family had a personal experience with it. When my son was younger, he didn’t like dogs. In elementary school, he was in Ms. Collin’s room. It didn’t take long before he was thrilled to help with Tank. That relationship changed life for our whole family.”

Time marches on for everyone and Tank crossed the rainbow bridge a few years ago. Now Laci Mae is the new dog on the block. The two-year-old Merle Great Dane currently weighs in at 125 pounds and will continue to grow. She has completed the initial training level as a Therapy Dog and has also qualified as a Facilities Dog. All her formal education and certifications have been with American Kennel Club Certified Dog Trainer Mel Deller.

IMMEASURABLE BENEFITS Mannix pointed to hard numbers that prove the value of the canine inclusion program such as increased attendance. “Students can’t learn if they aren’t here, so for us to have strong attendance rates during the pandemic, and even prior to it, is huge! Not only are the students here in class, but they are staying after school to read to the dog.”

Studies by the National Institute of Health (NIH) demonstrate that children who interact with a therapy dog show better social skills, more ability to share, better cooperation and volunteering, and have fewer behavioral problems. When students were asked for their thoughts on the program, they shared, “The days that Laci Mae comes in are always the best!”

The grant pays for Deller to serve as a handler and work with children and adults in the elementary, middle and high school to spread puppy love. Collin and Deller met through their shared interest and affection for dogs and became involved with Love on a Leash at the behest of a mutual friend. Together they, along with other volunteers, take their animals into the community to share the positive power of pet therapy. Locally these volunteers can be found in schools, colleges, hospitals, and nursing homes, and at the MHAB Life Skills Campus. Anywhere the dogs and their handlers are invited, tails are wagging!

Love on a Leash Gayle Roy Collin and Laci Mae You can follow Laci Mae on Instagram @lacimaebcsd

WARM COMFORT I had arranged to meet with Gayle and Laci Mae at my office on the SUNY campus. Once we were settled and I closed my door, Laci Mae began to pace. My office isn’t that big, especially when you put a Great Dane in it. As she was trying her best to circle me, I had my chair turned towards Gayle with my left leg crossed over my right. Laci bumped my leg down and got right in close to me. As she nosed my right arm up and made her way closer to me, she laid her head softly on my shoulder. When Gayle asked me, “Are you okay?” I burst into tears and fell into the support Laci Mae somehow knew to offer me. My family had said goodbye to our cherished thirteen-year-old lab just the day before. Laci Mae stayed close to me while Gayle expressed her condolences for what she knew to be a profound loss. I honestly never imagined my day or my interview would work out quite that way. Grief is tricky and erratic and I won’t say I’m done being sad, but I felt better on what was a terrible day because of a hug I got from a Great Dane.

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