David Frei and a therapy dog comfort a hospital patient.

PetPlace Chat: Meet David Frei, Pioneer in Animal-Assisted Therapy

You may know David Frei as one of the faces and voices of the National Dog Show, but hosting dog shows is just the beginning of the work he’s done with and for canines. Years before he ever picked up a microphone, David helped pioneer the field of animal-assisted therapy with his organization Angel on a Leash. Though these therapy programs were novel a few decades ago, the physical and mental benefits of animal companionship are widely recognized today.

I spoke to David about the origins of animal-assisted therapy, his own work with animals, and the ways a pandemic has affected animal therapy programs.

Where Did Animal-Assisted Therapy Start?

David Frei poses with a furry friend.

David Frei: I think everybody inherently understands that when you interact with a dog or your pet that it makes you feel better. So, in a sense, it’s been going on for years and years without a formal name. It’s just been a dog meeting you at the door after work or jumping on the couch with you when you’ve had a bad day.

It comes down, quite simply, to this: when a dog walks into the room, the energy changes. People smile, their blood pressure goes down, they get the chance to think about something other than challenges that they may be facing in their lives.

One of the first times I saw formal animal therapy in action was when I hosted a pet TV show on Fox News. We brought on a guest who’s a friend of mine named Bill Wynne. He’d written a book called Yorkie Doodle Dandy about his experience in the South Pacific during World War Two. He was a photographer on a recon mission and somebody in his company had found a Yorkshire Terrier of all things wandering around in the jungles of Borneo. They brought the dog back and sold it to Bill for ten dollars.

At one point, Bill came down with a fever and ended up in the hospital over there. His buddies figured it would be a good idea to bring the dog around to see him. So they started bringing the dog, walking him around the hospital, and letting him interact with Bill and the other patients there. As it turns out, the commanding officer of the field hospital was a guy named Colonel Charles Mayo — of the famous Mayo Clinic. You can’t get a much better endorsement than that to start out.

By the late 50s and early 60s, dogs were making visits to extended care and nursing homes. And pretty soon, the science started to back it up. It became clear that dogs weren’t just making people smile, but helping lower their blood pressure, improve their heart rate, and so on. The dogs were becoming a real part of the treatment process. That helped start the spread of organizations like the Delta Society — which is now called Pet Partners.

How Did Dogs Become a Part of Your Life?

DF: You know, I haven’t always been a dog person. We never had a dog in my family growing up. When I was 19 or 20, I moved into my first house in Eugene, Oregon. My girlfriend at the time suggested that we get a dog, so we did some research and settled on an Afghan Hound. She was gone within three weeks, but the dog stayed!

An Afghan Hound is a sort of unusual breed. When you have one, you run into a lot of people who want to talk about Afghan Hounds or introduce you to other Afghan Hound owners. People will cross the street to see an Afghan Hound. I started going to dog shows and married into a level of involvement competitively. That led to me traveling to shows all over and we had, by the time she retired, the top female Afghan Hound in the history of the breed.

I met the Westminster [Kennel Club Dog Show] people who knew I’d done some PR work. They were looking for someone to co-host their broadcast of their show on USA Network and brought me in to do an audition tape. When it was over, they liked it, I liked it, and they asked me to do their show. This was in 1990 and I thought hosting the show would be fun for a few years. That turned into moving to New York, hosting Westminster on television for 27 years, and working as their PR guy as well. In 2002, the National Dog Show came along and we’ve got our 19th show coming up on Thanksgiving. So that’s almost 30 years of dogs on TV.

My dad was a football coach and I tell people that I thought my career path would be lined with AstroTurf. I’ve come to find out it was lined with wee-wee pads.

How Did You Get Involved In Animal-Assisted Therapy?

DF: In the late 1990s I started working with the The Delta Society, based in the Seattle area. They knew me as the dog show TV host and reached out for help with their awards program. Around the same time, I met my wife Cheri, who was in the process of earning her master’s degree in theology and had written her thesis on animal-assisted therapy. She’s the one that really led me down the path of not just talking about it, but doing it.

Around that time, we worked at the Bailey-Boushay AIDS hospice in Seattle. Then we moved to New York and got involved with hospitals there. Cheri had her residency as the Catholic chaplain at Weill Cornell Medical Center and she eventually landed at the Ronald McDonald House as director of family support. I’d suggested to the Westminster Kennel Club that we create the Angel on a Leash therapy program as a charitable activity for the Club. So we did and it grew very quickly — so much so that we decided it should become an independent charity. We created and administered therapy dog programs at healthcare facilities all over New York, the New York area, and a few other places across the country.

Our dogs were the first ones ever allowed into Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We did a pilot program with the Women’s Health unit. It was just six months with very strict guidelines, but after those six months, we were asked to expand all over the hospital. I also used to go to the VA hospital in New York every Wednesday and Grace, my Brittany, was a star. It started with bedside visits and then we got involved with all sorts of physical and occupational therapy. I can’t tell you how many times we’d hear from a physical therapist, “in minutes, your dog got [a patient] to do what we’ve been trying to get him to do all week.”

I dissolved the charity a few years ago when we moved back to Oregon, but I’ve since handed it off to a friend of mine named Steve Kramer who lives in the Philadelphia area. He’s carried on Angel on a Leash and they’re doing great things.

Do Any Breeds Make Especially Good Therapy Dogs?

A therapy dog on duty.

DF: There are some dogs that are inherently suited to it because of their breed and temperament, but, in general, I think that great therapy dogs are born, not made. Any breed can make a good therapy dog, any mixed-breed dog can make a good therapy dog. They just need the right temperament — and that will vary based on who they’re working with.

When we talk about training a therapy dog, we’re really more concerned with training the handler or human partner. It’s their job to protect the dog and keep them safe. They’ve got to stay alert to make sure they’re not getting tangled in IV tubes or jumping into beds. Some dogs take more dedication than others and the handler has to play a really important role in giving cues. It’s a combination of keeping out of the dog’s way but also staying totally aware of what’s going on at all times.

How Do You Train Someone to Handle Therapy Animals?

DF: Many organizations have a training process that involves shadowing other dogs and their handlers on the job. For me, one of the most important parts of the process is teaching them to channel the dog’s enthusiasm and pick up on subtle signs to ensure they’re not overworking their dogs. A lot of people think that their dogs can go all day. In reality, my dogs have a two-hour limit and, sometimes, it’s much less than that. It’s important for handlers to recognize and acknowledge when their dog “hits the wall” and, some days, it might be a shorter time span than others.

Another important lesson for handlers is that you’re not just helping patients. You’re also there for the families of patients and the staff members at the healthcare facilities you visit. A few minutes with a dog can make a big difference for them too.

How Can Dog Owners Learn More About Animal-Assisted Therapy?

DF: First, make sure to start socializing your dog as soon as possible. That way you’re both ready to go once you find your way into a more formal training process.

Getting formally involved in animal therapy programs can go a couple of ways. If you know where you’d like to work, start by talking to the people there. They may already have connections with therapy organizations. The other way to get involved is to talk with a veterinarian, groomer, kennel owner, anybody who works closely with dogs. Ask if they’ve got any connections to trainers who work with therapy dogs. There are a number of trainers out there who specialize in therapy dogs who’ll get you in touch with the registering organization and ensure you’ve got the right training and education.

It might take time to get your dog into places like children’s hospitals where pet therapy is especially popular, but it doesn’t hurt to get on the list and make yourself known.

How Has COVID-19 Changed Animal-Assisted Therapy?

DF: In-person visits are difficult. I know there are some programs that are going forward in ways that are not compromised, but it’s mostly gone virtual. It’s not quite the same as having the tactile part of the therapy, where you can hug and pet the dogs, but there’s still some uncertainty about whether or not dogs can contract and spread the disease – chances are slim, but nonetheless, I follow the science. Dr. Fauci says, “We don’t think so, but we just don’t know.” My dogs are members of my family and I certainly don’t want to say “full speed ahead” until we’re certain that it’s safe.

At this point, my dogs are mostly helping me out in these times. I’ll sometimes hold them up on Zoom calls or say ‘Hi’ to people walking down the street, but that’s been the extent of it.

Will In-Person Animal Therapy Make a Comeback Post-Pandemic?

DF: Absolutely, because it was going strong. It will endure. I think medical institutions and training organizations may end up with new rules, but animal therapy isn’t going anywhere. And we’re looking forward to its return.