Caloosa Belle

Inspiring LaBelle – Volunteering with Therapy Dogs

Ellen adds Shelby’s paw prints to a memory piece as Sophia Caltabiano waits to add her hand print to the project during the last week of summer school at the LaBelle Middle School ESY Program. (Submitted photo)

Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.
~Anatole France

Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Ellen Ferguson’s soul was awakened at an early age. Her parents had show dogs, and in 1962 at the age of eight, she started showing standard smooth Dachshunds. She competed in conformation, Junior Showmanship and obedience. Ellen was also bitten by the horse bug, and she competed with her off-track Thoroughbred in Hunter/Jumper classes at horse shows.

In 1981 she moved to Miami and began her love affair with the Basset Hound. Ellen has bred and handled many champions, and also titled several Bassets in Obedience, Agility, Rally and Tracking. Today she shows Basset Hounds in both AKC and UKC shows.

Ellen’s true passion is with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD), which she discovered while living in Miami. She has been a tester/observer with this national organization since its inception in 1990. To be in this non-profit, all-volunteer organization, you need to begin with a friendly dog, any breed or mix, and an owner/hander who has a desire to share it with others. Locations can be nursing homes, schools, libraries, daycare facilities or any place that can benefit from the unconditional love provided by a registered therapy dog.

Ellen currently has two bassets registered as therapy dogs – Shelby and Magic, that she rotates on visits to Oak Brook of LaBelle, LaBelle Middle School ESY Program and the Edgewood Academy in Ft Myers.

“I like to rotate the dogs to help prevent burn-out. Serving as a therapy dog can be stressful,” she said.

It’s not only the dogs who can get burned out but their owners as well because “it takes special capabilities to do this,” Ellen noted.

In Miami, Ellen worked with 30 ATD teams that went to various locations throughout the area. Usually, teams of two or three volunteers would serve together. At one nursing home, Ellen had one of her best experiences ever when a woman who hadn’t spoken a word in five years pointed to Ellen’s ATD partner’s Golden Retriever and asked, “that’s a retriever isn’t it?” The nurse who was accompanying the team around the home started to cry as the woman asked them to “bring that handsome face over here!” It has been proven that dogs can stimulate long term memories in Alzheimer’s patients.

A students hand print is added to the memory piece. (Submitted photo)

If this sounds like a program that you would be interested in, then visit www.therapydogs.com for more information. You can also get in touch with Ellen at 863-517-2000. Potential canine candidates need to be at least one year old and well socialized, up-to-date on vaccinations and proof of no internal parasites.

Ellen is not only an ATD member she is a Tester Observer. Recently, she has tested and passed Maritza Andrews and her Papillon, “Mandy”, and Alex DeStefano with his Belgian Malinois, “Demo”. Each team had to be first tested for suitability, then observed three times, two visits must be in a medical setting and the other can be in any place, like the Bridge Street Coffee and Tea.

Ellen is a retired executive assistant and is a volunteer with Suncoast Basset Rescue. She meet her husband Bob Ferguson, 26 years ago in Miami, they married and moved to an 80 acre farm in Muse where she now has six Bassets, four cats, cows, and true to her “horse country” roots, she has three rescue horses.

Alliance of Therapy Dogs
Therapy Dogs Are About Sharing Smiles & Joy. Caring People & Sweet Dogs Sharing Our 4-Legged Friends to Spread Smiles & Joy. ATD provides registration, support, and insurance for members who volunteer with dogs to visit hospitals, special needs centers, schools, nursing homes, and airports. Our objective is to form a network of caring individuals who are willing to share their special dogs to bring happiness and cheer to people, young and old alike.