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Love On A Leash: Therapy Dogs Spread Love Throughout San Diego

Video by Kris Arciaga

A friendly dog can help you feel better. That's the concept behind Love on a Leash, a nonprofit group that brings therapy dogs to people who need an emotional boost.

On a weekday afternoon at the Georgina Cole Library in Carlsbad, one of the biggest stars of Love on a Leash arrives in his SUV.

Like many pop culture celebrities, he goes by only one name: Bosley.

Melissa Cantania opens one of the back doors for him.

“All right, let’s go! Good boy, we’re going to work,” Cantania said. “You ready to go to work? We’re gonna see some friends.”

Bosley is a 170-pound English Mastiff. His head is as big as a watermelon. If he growled at you, you’d probably have a heart attack.

But Bosley would never growl at anyone — he’s as gentle as they come.

And so are the other Love on a Leash dogs, like Zuni and Pixie.

Today’s mission: to sit quietly and let kids read to them.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Kris Arciaga

Love on a Leash volunteers Melissa Cantania and Bonnie Biggs bring their therapy dogs Bosley and Zuni to greet children at the Georgina Cole Library in Carlsbad, on Aug. 17, 2016.

These dogs bring a smile to everyone’s face. After all, that’s their job. They’re therapy dogs.

Unlike service dogs, which are trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities, therapy dogs are trained to just be sweet companions.

Zuni’s owner, Bonnie Biggs, said therapy dogs need to have a certain temperament.

“Dogs that pretty much are happy to be around people, that aren’t aggressive with other dogs, because they do visits together," she said. "That love children, and love old people, and love all kinds of people.”

You might say the dogs are in the love business. They give it, and they get it in return.

Biggs said there’s actually some science behind the feeling you get when you’re around a friendly dog. It involves the hormone oxytocin.

“When you pet a dog, they have measured increased levels of oxytocin, which is an affiliative hormone — you feel comfort, safety, affection and love, when oxytocin is going through your body," Biggs explained. "They’re now finding that there’s a feedback loop between dogs and people, so that the dog is also showing increased levels of oxytocin in the body when they’re being petted.”

All of the people involved with Love on a Leash are volunteers. There are 700 members in San Diego County, and more than 2,000 nationwide.

At the Georgina Cole Library event, while the kids practice reading aloud, the dogs just hang out and listen.

Library assistant Kylee Seal said the dogs don’t criticize anyone.

“They’re not, you know, ‘hey, this is how you pronounce that word.’ They don’t even know their ABCs, so they’re not going to test you on anything,” she said.

The dogs don’t fight, bite, or bark. You never hear a peep out of them.

That’s because they’ve been exceptionally well-trained.

Each Love on a Leash dog has to know all of the basic commands, like sit and stay. They must pass a rigorous evaluation by a certified dog trainer. Then they must go on 10 supervised visits to prove that they can get along with other dogs.

Melissa Cantania said Bosley’s first visit was a disaster.

“We went to the VA Hospital. And he wasn’t quite clear about what his job was. He pulled me through the hospital. It was kind of a mess," she said. "He saw other dogs there, and he thought he was there to play with the other dogs. But after the 10 visits, he got it. He understands now. We put on the vest. We put on the bandana. We’re gonna go to work. And he knows his job is to do this.”

The Brookdale assisted living community in Oceanside is another frequent stop on the Love on a Leash circuit.

Brookdale residents just love the animals. One resident, Robert Albert, is prompted to sing the praises of a dog named Daisy.

“Daisy, Daisy, tell me your answer, true. I’m half crazy over the love of you,” he sang.

Every Tuesday afternoon, a big group of Love on a Leash dogs visit the Wounded Warriors battalion at Camp Pendleton.

This battalion is made up of some 150 Marines who are recovering from serious injuries.

They have to put in a lot of work to restore their health. Marine Cpl. Caden Gossard, who walks with a cane, said the dogs are a big help.

“A lot of the guys here are just always suffering. I know I am. It’s a hard time on your own trying to get better," he said. "But they come and it brings memories of home, brings memory of how much you loved when you had a dog at home, and it just makes you feel better inside.”

Photo caption:

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Bubba, a chocolate Lab, visits the Wounded Warriors battalion at Camp Pendleton.

Bubba, a chocolate Lab, is a big hit here. His owner, Marion Knowles, said she loves coming to the base.

“It’s so neat when you see the Marines getting down on the floor with the dogs, and just giving and receiving love. It’s really, really cool. It makes the day," she said.

Knowles said she recently took Bubba to see some friends who were going through a rough patch. She said a little time with Bubba did the trick.

“It’s better than drugs," she said.

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