A swarming mass of wagging tails, shiny coats and muzzles creased into smiles crowds the long driveway to Black Forest’s Wescott-Shamrock Ranch Fire Station No. 2 on this Sunday morning.
There’s tiny Maya, a 1-year-old Shih Tzu and poodle mix, who fits perfectly in the crook of an arm and has a bit of a “Napoleon complex,” according to her owner, Lori Schlonski. And then there’s amiable Boomer, a massive black Newfoundland who might fit in Andre the Giant’s arms, though even that would be a stretch. Tabor, a 12-year-old golden retriever who loves to wear colorful baseball hats, lolls happily on the pavement. He doesn’t walk too well anymore due to arthritis, but he’s happy to be part of the action. Waffles, a mini Australian shepherd, rolls over for a vigorous belly rub, while brother Bacon, a German shepherd and chihuahua mix (yes, it’s a real thing), isn’t fickle. He’ll get in your personal space and lean up against anyone who shows interest.
Purebreds, mutts, rescues, these dogs all have one thing in common: an inherent ability to help people feel better in times of stress, sadness and tragedy.
Nancy Trepagnier is in charge of the canine commotion on this sunny early June day. The executive director and master trainer of the nonprofit Go Team Therapy, Crisis and Airport Dogs might be adding teams of dogs and handlers to her roster after a weekend of testing and training drills, and re-certifying current members of her dog squad.
“I love it,” said Trepagnier. “I love to watch them work. It makes you happy.”
The day before, the dozens of teams congregated in Denver, where they practiced getting on and off buses and light rail, walking up and down the stairs in Denver Union Station and navigating the crowds on the 16th Street Mall.
Sunday, after their work at the fire station is complete, the teams will head to an assisted living home for a pet parade and to learn about HIPAA privacy laws, before ending the weekend at the Colorado Springs Airport, where they’ll work with SkyWest Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration.
Colorado Springs resident Jennifer Sikora waits with her dog, Koda, an affectionate 5-year-old German shepherd mix she rescued from the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region. Sikora, who was diagnosed with autism early in life, first experienced the healing power of dogs as a child.
“When I felt like people didn’t understand me, I felt like my dog did,” she said. “I knew the contentment a dog could bring.”
She and Koda have been on the Go Team for four years and are in Black Forest to get re-certified.
“It felt like something valuable to give back to the community,” she said about deciding to train her dog.
The duo attend events a few times every month and visit the Cedar Springs Hospital for mental health care and the Bob Telmosse annual Christmas Giveaway, which helps families in need.
Becoming an official Go Team member is not for the lazy. This is no lackadaisical training. It’s more intense than the average therapy dog group, said Trepagnier, who started the nonprofit with the intention to take it to the next level. Some teams will make the cut. Others won’t. Some might only need a little more training before they’re approved to come on board.
As soon as the wail of the firetruck starts up in Black Forest, and teams are asked to walk around the big rig, one young pup rescued from the Dumb Friends League in Denver clearly wants none of it.
When invited to crisis events, dogs need to remain calm in the face of chaos, including loud noises, large vehicles and firefighters in their gear. But even though this dog does not want to attempt the task at hand, it doesn’t mean he can’t become a Go Team Therapy Dog. His skill set might be better used at different events.
“Dogs are dogs,” said Trepagnier. “They have off days, just like people. We tell people to take them home.”
No breeds are discriminated against, including so-called “bully breeds,” such as pit bulls and Rottweilers, though most on the Go Team are mutts — lab and shepherd mixes. All that matters is that they pass an American Kennel Club-approved Canine Good Citizen test and be at least 1 year old before attending the two-day class.
Trepagnier, who started training dogs for competition at age 8 and teaching group obedience classes at 13, was spurred into action during the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire. It was the birthday of her son David, who died from melanoma at 23, and she was feeling low. As she watched the devastation unfold on TV, she got a strong feeling that she needed to take her therapy dogs, golden retriever Snickers and Tabor, who helped David during cancer treatment, to evacuation areas for displaced families.
“I didn’t want to go,” she said. “But it was like I got tapped on the shoulder. I know it sounds silly, but it was like David said, ‘Mom, go,’ and it changed our lives.”
When she and 15-year-old son Ryan visited first responders, an out-of-state firefighter asked to borrow Tabor for a nap in his tent while Trepagnier waited outside. Interactions such as this, between her dogs and people in crisis, convinced Trepagnier to create a nonprofit.
“It’s a passion,” she said. “I do it in memory of my son.”
Life looks very different now for the woman who worked in the airline industry for 35 years. She got the nonprofit up and running in 2013 and now can boast almost 700 volunteers around the world who bring their dogs into a variety of situations. She receives more requests for help than she can accommodate.
Pine Creek High School welcomed dogs on the last day of school in May. As kids milled around the cafeteria solidifying their summer plans, Maya and Pepper, her Yorkipoo sister, mingled with them. Pepper, a four-year Go Team Therapy Dog, took it all in stride, resting comfortably in the arms of the girls who gathered to coo at her soft white fluffiness.
“You can see the looks on kids’ and adults’ faces when they’re making a connection to the dog, if they’re having a rough day,” said Schlonski, Pepper’s owner. Maya was also on scene, dazzling the high school crowd with her petite and feminine wiles. “It makes you feel better helping them out.”
Ten dogs visited STEM School Highlands Ranch to comfort fifth-graders after the May shootings there. Trepagnier’s dogs are the only recognized therapy dog team for Colorado Springs School District 11, though they work with all the region’s school districts, as well as the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado College and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“We don’t say a word. We let the dogs speak to the people,” said Trepagnier. “We’re dopes on the end of the ropes.”