Local | Pets

Therapy pet spins an active life in Tucson’s Jewish and general community

Yofi wears her Sparks Cheer T-shirt.

Yofi, a fluffy 2-year-old goldendoodle, leads a very dynamic life in the Jewish community and beyond. She is an athlete, educator, therapist and beloved pet with a very busy schedule.

Her active social life began early with basic training at eight weeks old. “She went from crazy to calm in six weeks,” recalls Yofi’s “mom” and taxi driver Judith Shepard Gomez, a retired sociology professor. The pup started training with Jeremy Brown, owner of The Complete Canine. Brown, a former PetSmart corporate trainer, teaches basic training, socialization, obedience, and tricks. He is also a trainer and evaluator with the Alliance for Therapy Pets for therapy dogs, something that intrigued Shepard Gomez when she learned about it during Yofi’s intermediate training.

Before they could start pet therapy training, Shepard Gomez’s partner, Marjorie Hochberg, and Yofi were involved in a traumatic accident. A car struck down Hochberg, the cantorial soloist at Temple Emanu-El, during a morning walk with the dog. Hochberg was seriously injured. Frightened by the ordeal, the 8-month-old pup ran off into the desert and was lost for 20 hours. In a harrowing rescue with help from numerous community pet organizations and friends, the rattled dog was found. While Hochberg had a long road to recovery, Yofi changed. “Since the accident, she seems to want to give more,” says Brown. That’s when the light went on for Shepard Gomez, and Yofi gained a new calling.

Animal assisted-therapy helps all kinds of people improve social, emotional or cognitive function. Advocates say animals can help with educational and motivational effectiveness. A properly trained therapy dog can provide affection, comfort, and love to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices and disaster incidents. Scientific research shows animal-assisted therapy has a calming effect and motivates children to excel academically and behaviorally. Therapy pets often assist children on the autism spectrum. Through training and testing, they can become certified and insured to visit, bringing cheer, smiles, healing, and unconditional listening to humans in need.

Yofi and Shepard Gomez trained to become one of Brown’s 45 teams now actively volunteering in outreach programs at local schools like Donaldson and Sam Hughes elementary. Teams visit the local Holocaust survivors group and patients in Agape Hospice and Foothills Place Assisted Living. At Temple Emanu-El, Yofi is a reading dog, listening intently and without judgment while students practice reading to her in Hebrew.

As trainer Brown’s young son began attending Early Childhood Education at the Tucson Jewish Community Center in March,  Brown found a warm reception to the idea of introducing the tiny students to the therapy dog teams he has trained, including Team Yofi and Shepard Gomez.

At a Sparks cheerleading rehearsal at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, Yofi sits on a command from owner Judith Shephard Gomez.

When the J kicked off its Sparks social club last year, Special Abilities Coordinator Allison Wexler made sure there was animal therapy involved, inviting a HoofsnHorns Farm Sanctuary animal rescue organization. “Without allergies, animals and people with disabilities are a good fit,” she says. The club soon launched its Sparks Cheer athletics program, an all-inclusive, co-ed cheerleading team for people of all ages and abilities. The program began as an adaptive one, specifically for individuals with special needs. However, as it evolved, “neuro-typical” individuals expressed interest in joining. “It’s sort of a reverse inclusion program,” says Wexler. The program currently has 16 participants, ages three to 36.

Shepard Gomez volunteered to take Yofi in as a special guest for the Sparks Cheer’s first friends and family performance. She became the team’s first canine cheerleader, while doubling as a therapy dog. By that time, the lovable pooch had learned to stand and spin whenever the cheerleaders yelled, “Sparks!” She will continue participating as a mascot and performing with the group as appropriate, Wexler adds.

Jeremy Brown trained Archie as a therapy dog.

While the canine continues to be a popular fixture at the J, Brown’s cadre of working hounds are expanding their therapy visits through Kiernan’s Kindness, a nonprofit organization he recently formed. He will be placing volunteer teams in the community, targeting underserviced schools, reading programs and spreading kindness. A long-term goal is to create a five- to 10-team traveling crisis group to assist around the region in times of need.

Kiernan’s Kindness will hold its dog-friendly launch event in the J’s Sculpture Garden on Sunday, Oct. 21, 3-5 p.m. Brown encourages everyone to come and see the amazing things the therapy dog teams are doing, especially those who may want to volunteer or consider therapy dog service.

Contact Brown at completecaninetucson@gmail.com or 403-1401.