wagging tails spreading smiles

Michelle Liu
March 26, 2024

Mandy and Misia get a lot of attention wherever they go. Once they enter a room, most people are drawn to their sweet faces and friendly personalities. But it’s not just their cuteness that appeals to crowds; these Dalmatian siblings are also therapy dogs.

Misia and Mandy. Photo courtesy Brenda Nomura

“Everyone’s reaction to them is just pure joy and smiles,” says Brenda Nomura, Mandy and Misia’s owner and a handler with K9 TheraPets of Hawaii.

The spotted pups and their furry, four-legged friends love the classroom, but they also travel around Oahu, visiting libraries, nursing homes, and college campuses. Under the K9 TheraPets program, the dogs help children become comfortable reading aloud, provide companionship to kupuna, and ease stress for students of all ages.

Therapy dog teams visiting the library at UH West Oahu. Photo courtesy K9 TheraPets

Working as a team
From Dalmatians to Golden Retrievers, the dogs in K9 TheraPets have gone through extensive training alongside their handlers. The teams are certified with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national therapy dog organization.

“Our mission is to spread joy and emotional support to those in need,” says Fay Jitchaku, founder of K9 TheraPets and a therapy dog trainer. “We try to support facilities that need stress relief when we can.”

Star (Dalmatian) and Ren (Rough Collie) spreading smiles at Hale O Meleana. Photo courtesy K9 TheraPets

Jitchaku started the volunteer group after noticing there weren’t enough therapy dogs on Oahu. Today, three dozen certified teams of dogs and handlers make up K9 TheraPets of Hawaii. They’re dispersed around the island based on the need for the day and where the dogs best fit in.

“Even though they’re trained, they still have different personalities,” explains Nomura. “Mandy loves visiting elderly people; she keeps moving from one person to another to get pets. Her little friend Hachi, a Maltese mix, sits nicely on the laps of residents in her cute outfit with bows in her ears. Misia’s a bit of a rascal and does well with kids, so she’s the one who goes to schools.”

There’s also Meka, a Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix, who likes to do tricks and find treats hidden under a cup, which delights keiki. Ozzie the Smooth Collie is extra obedient and has just started bringing comfort to the Honolulu Police Department. Cha Cha, a Golden Retriever, enjoys lying down and listening to keiki practice reading aloud in libraries.

Cha Cha doing a "read-to-dog" visit at Kaneohe Public Library. Photo courtesy K9 TheraPets

“Dogs aren’t judgmental. They help provide a safe environment for kids so they won’t be afraid to stumble when they’re learning to read,” says Jitchaku.

Smiles, plenty of pets, and learning
Research shows dogs are sensitive to our emotional needs and can reduce anxiety and stress. At Leilehua High School in Wahiawa, the dogs also help with students’ emotional and social well-being.

Nomura, a teacher at Leilehua High, coordinates the visits. “Students who don’t know each other will pet the same dog and talk to each other while asking the handlers questions,” she says. “They open up around the dogs and that helps create connections.”

Therapy dog teams visit Leilehua High twice a week. Photo courtesy K9 TheraPets

For three special education classes, the dogs’ visits also give students something to look forward to; many have learned how to use a calendar to see when the dogs will pop by their class. Students who can’t read are able to recognize the pups’ names when they’re posted on the board. These twice a week visits can also have a positive effect on their mental health and even encourage good behavior.

“There was a student who had poor attendance,” Nomura says. “But if he knew it was a day the dogs were coming, he’d show up at the classroom door.”

Benefits of a fluffy hug
During the most stressful week of the academic year, therapy dog teams are on hand to help ease the stress of finals – whether that’s before the exam or afterward.

The fluffy dogs help ease stress for students at UH Manoa. Photo courtesy K9 TheraPets

“We were at UH Manoa when a boy who had just failed his exam was dragging himself up the steps to the Student Center,” says Jitchaku. “And he encountered a big, wagging dog at the top of the stairs. He just went on his knees and hugged the dog and said, ‘Thanks, I really needed this.’”

The college campus visits also help students who aren’t from Oahu and have pets at home.

“They talk about their own dogs and how much they miss being away from them,” says Nomura. “So not only do these interactions relieve stress, but it also brings them a lot of joy.”

Whether it’s a school, hospital, police department, or nursing home, the therapy dogs are making a difference with their little wag of a tail, friendly personality, and relaxing vibe.

Misia being pet at a visit. Photo courtesy Brenda Nomura

“You can feel the tension melt away when we walk into a room,” says Jitchaku. “There’s just excitement and anticipation.”

“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing the smiles they bring to people’s faces,” adds Nomura.

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