Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: A girl and her dog spread therapy of smiles

Emily Schneider remembers visiting her grandfather years ago when he entered the Avalon Care Center in Federal Way. She would accompany her parents, Chris and Mary, her older brother, Michael, and their golden retriever, Charlie.

There was never much doubt who was most popular.

“Whenever we would head down the hall to my grandfather’s room, people would say ‘Can we meet your dog?’” Emily said. “Everyone loves Charlie.”

Closing in on her 17th birthday next month, Emily has been a Girl Scout since second grade. Last week she received a Gold Award for community service – an honor fewer than 6 percent of all Girl Scouts receive.

Among the requirements was a project that would sustain itself beyond her own involvement. Or Charlie’s.

“Charlie is a therapy dog,” she said. “A service dog you get from a place that trains them to do specific things. A therapy dog is more like your own dog, well-behaved, good around people.

“We’ve had Charlie since he was a pup. He loves being around people”

The Schneider clan is nothing if not dog-friendly. They live in Tacoma and have four dogs.

“Charlie’s gotten a bit gray, but he’s still a golden,” Emily said. “We also have a mutt, Snoopy, who’s a black lab mix. He’s going to be a therapy dog. And we have two Shetland Sheepdog brothers, Buddy and Cooper.

“They’re too energetic. They’ll never be therapy dogs.”

After her grandfather’s death, Emily realized the other residents of Avalon and similar care facilities around the region would love to have visits, too.

A plan hatched. Emily began recruiting friends and their dogs to team up in the same capacity as she and Charlie. The dogs required certificates, which meant those working with them had to help them pass achievable behavior goals.

Her campaign was so successful at Bellarmine Preparatory School that the group became an on-campus club.

“You’re spending time with your dog, and the people you visit are so grateful,” said Emily, who will be a Bellarmine senior this fall. “Some of the people never get visitors, and they’ll cry when they meet Charlie. They’ll start petting him, and he’ll put his head in their lap and close his eyes for five minutes.

“Others in the program have had the same responses.”

Everyone has a favorite dog breed, but therapy dogs can come in all flavors.

“The other kids I’ve recruited have dogs that run the gamut,” Emily said. “We have a pug, a Bernese mountain dog, a labrador and a rat dog with a little hair. We have all kinds of dogs.”

Anne Brennan has been the scout leader for Troop 41578 since Emily first joined in second grade.

“She used to be very shy. Now she’s grown into a young woman who is self-motivated, capable of solving problems on her own,” Brennan said. “She gets the service part of scouting, and she’s serving from her heart. Emily enjoys bringing a smile to someone’s face.”

And Charlie, the eight-year-old therapy dog?

“I’ve met Charlie, and he’s a very well-behaved dog – definitely better than my beagle, Toby,” Brennan said. “Charlie relaxes people. Toby would be far more likely to cause anxiety than relieve it.”

Emily and Charlie visit Cascade Park Gardens in Tacoma every week during the school year, then shift over to Cascade Park Vista in the summer.

“It’ll be me, my mom and Charlie visiting, and we’ll enjoy it, but Charlie really likes it,” Emily said. “Some people he really just loves to visit, and he’s friendly with everyone. When we get home, he takes a long nap.

“It’s a lot of work to be cuddly.”