Fri, Jul 01, 2016 - Page 16 News List

US swimmers count on ‘therapy dogs’

AP, OMAHA, Nebraska

Larry, a goldendoodle, waits for athletes to arrive while working as a therapy dog at the US Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday.

Photo: AP

Kacey Oberlander is missing her dogs back home and she is more than a little stressed competing in the high-pressure environment at the US Olympic swimming trials.

That is where Holly comes in.

The adorable, four-year-old Havanese is available for petting and furry hugs.

“It just calms me down a lot,” said Oberlander, who swims for York YMCA in Pennsylvania and is to attend the University of Alabama in the fall. “It’s nice to see the happy puppy dogs running around when everything is so intense and everyone’s so serious. The dogs are very happy all the time. It makes me calm.”

Yes, the Olympic trials have gone to the dogs — and the athletes are loving it.

USA Swimming, in an effort to ease some of the anxiety accompanying such a major meeting, has partnered with Domesti-PUPS — a nonprofit organization based in Lincoln, Nebraska, that is providing four-legged companions for the athletes’ lounge at the CenturyLink Center.

In a section of the arena that is generally off-limits to everyone except the swimmers, dogs such as Holly and Larry, a goldendoodle who will readily pose for a picture or pause for a pat on the head, have been welcomed with open arms.

If anyone doubts their purpose, each pooch wears a collar that says: “Please ask to pet me. I’m friendly.”

“There’s a lot of pressure,” said Leah Braswell, a teammate of Oberlander’s. “Having the dogs here is a great distraction, a way to take a break from all of that. They’re happy all the time. It just makes you happier. You can forget about whatever race you just had.”

Given their gentle, soothing nature, “therapy dogs” have become more familiar around hospitals, retirement homes, hospice centers and disaster areas. They have provided comfort to veterans and those with autism. They have even done time in prisons, nudging inmates along the road to rehabilitation.

There is no judgement from these animals. Fido merely wants to love and be loved. For someone in pain or anguish, they can be an invaluable companion.

At the Olympic trials, their role is a bit different, but it is really in keeping with the extensive training that Domesti-PUPS puts its animals through before sending them out into the world.

“Anywhere there’s an elevated level of stress, we can take our dogs and try to destress them,” said Sandy Ludwig, who works with the organization. “These dogs are just lying there, waiting to have their bellies rubbed or their ears scratched.”

“This is the first time we’ve ever done it,” said Morgan Weinberg, the program and services manager for USA Swimming.

“I’m an animal lover myself, and I was trying to think of different ways in the athlete lounge that they would calm down, and kind of just relax and have fun,” Weinberg said.

“I like dogs, I thought about dogs and it just kind of evolved into therapy dogs,” she said.

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