Therapy dog brings comfort to community

Therapy dog Opal leans against handler Veronica Robinette with a smile in Ludington Park on Wednesday. The pair works with the Delta County Victim Service Unit and the Delta Regional Child Advocacy Center. (Escanaba Daily Press photo)

ESCANABA — The Delta County Victim Services Unit (VSU) — made up of volunteers dedicated to helping people recover from crises and crimes against them by providing comfort, referrals, and related aid — has a new team member. Three-and-a-half-year-old therapy dog Opal, a poodle trained by Canines for Comfort, works with VSU as needed and elsewhere in the community.

Canines for Comfort is a nonprofit that trains therapy dogs to be placed with agencies that work with vulnerable populations. The organization was formed by Sarah Sorenson in 2022 after Blue, an Australian Shepherd adopted following the massive puppy mill bust in Maple Ridge a few years ago, was trained to comfort children. Canines for Comfort partners with the Delta Animal Shelter in Escanaba on a program called “The Remarkable Rescue Dog Project” to recruit, train and give new, positive purpose to the lives of shelter animals with dispositions suited for comfort work.

The newest — and first — Remarkable Rescue Dog graduate breaks the mold in that when the shelter reached out to Canines for Comfort and suggested they meet this particular dog, Opal was already social and obedient.

In January 2023, Opal was surrendered to the Delta Animal Shelter by her previous owner who’d had to make the difficult decision to give up her dog. The Standard Poodle was two-and-a-half at the time. Veronica Robinette, who is currently Opal’s owner and one of two certified handlers, said that it was clear the dog had been loved; she was well-rounded and socialized.

Robinette, who began dog training when she was 11 years old, was previously the kennel manager and dog trainer at D&D Dog Dynamics in Gladstone.

“Opal is the most well-rounded dog I have met in a long time,” said Robinette. “There aren’t many dogs who can do well in any type of situation they are thrown into, but Opal thrives in that.”

With VSU calls, Robinette explained, every situation is different. Upon arriving at the scene of a fire, car accident, death notification, indoor or outdoor, active emergency or otherwise, Opal remains in the vehicle at first until the team confirms that it is safe for her and that the people involved are comfortable with Opal being there.

Opal, Robinette, and VSU’s Alicia Milam — the other qualified handler — have trained with Sammi Grzybowski at D&D Dog Dynamics and are certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. They have also completed training and have approval to respond to situations inside the hospital.

Dispatch only pages VSU about once a month, and not all of those calls require Opal. The dog also attends monthly grief group gatherings held by VSU and the community events they organize, but that still leaves a lot of her schedule open to helping the community in other ways.

Robinette works for the Delta Regional Child Advocacy Center (DRCAC), a nonprofit child trauma-focused organization which aims to work compassionately, putting the needs of children in crisis first. In cooperation with law enforcement and the Department of Health and Human Services, the DRCAC conducts forensic interviews with victims of crime aged two to 17 “in a family-friendly environment utilizing a multi-disciplinary team approach and research-based, nationally-accepted standards for efficient, effective, and trauma-informed investigation and intervention practices.” They currently serve seven Upper Peninsula counties.

Recently-retired Blue was the designated therapy dog of the DRCAC. Now, all dogs in training with Canines for Comfort get hands-on experience at the shelter. Opal has already spent a lot of time there and is going to start coming to work with Robinette every day that she isn’t needed by VSU. Once another DRCAC advocate is fully-trained and certified as a handler, Opal will be able to travel out with them. On-site at the center, Robinette said, they usually conduct at least one interview a day.

Robinette shared what she called the most touching story she’s witnessed with Opal, an interaction with a child who entered the DRCAC frightened and shut-down:

“When I asked them if they liked dogs, their eyes lit up and a big smile crossed their face. I thought they were going to hug me when I asked if they would like me to bring our therapy dog. Opal did what she does best, her signature lean-in, and threw her head up to look at them with a big smile. That child didn’t want to do anything else besides cuddle with Opal on the floor. She did just that. She laid with them wrapped in her legs until it was time for their forensic interview. About halfway through their interview, they stopped my coworker and said they needed some more Opal love to get through the rest. They came back into the waiting room and snuggled up to her and when they were ready to proceed, they went back and finished their interview.

“To me, that was when I knew Opal’s impact was bigger than what I could ever put into words and when I knew she was the perfect dog for our community to have as a resource.”

Loved and appreciated by many, Opal goes where requested when able. Robinette said that she never gets overwhelmed by noises or crowds — “The more people, the better for her.”

Opal has attended the Suicide Prevention Walk, the Christian Grouleau Memorial Race, a Delta Animal Shelter Fundraiser, a Tri-County Safe Harbor event and a third grade show-and-tell.

Robinette said that she is confident that Opal is the best dog for the VSU. “She has to be able to adapt to any situation she is thrown into, and I couldn’t picture any dog doing it better than she does.”


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