A young boy quietly sits cross-legged, his favorite book turned to the first page in his lap. He reaches to his side and gently strokes his new pal, a 2-year-old collie, brought especially for him that afternoon. As the first words flow from his mouth clearly and loudly, the dog rests its head on the boy's leg and the child immediately relaxes. With his concentration solely on the text in front of him, and not on his speech disability, he reads page after page to his new friend. The collie underwent weeks of obedience training to remain docile and ease the young boy's mind as he conquered his disability. The obedience training, referred to by most as dog therapy training, prepares dogs that have a natural love and adoration of people to aid the sick and those with disabilities in settings such as classrooms, hospitals and physical therapy facilities. Pecos Community Center is currently offering advanced classes instructed by Eileen Tonick, founder and owner of the dog training company Angel Dogs, to prepare dogs for the test they and their owner must pass before the dogs can be assigned to help people. The only requirement for the class, Tonick said, is basic obedience skills and a knack for interaction with people. The classes are a combination of basic obedience and advanced training techniques. "Therapy dogs can't be shy, and they have to feel comfortable around strangers," Tonick said. "In class, we test the dog's reactions to noise, toys and strangers. I recommend to my clients to take their dogs to Home Depot a few times a week, to get them used to crowds." Participants in the class vary at different levels, and therefore need consistent individualized training from both instructor and owner. During class, Tonick approaches each dog with a brush and a few pats on the back to familiarize the dogs with stranger interaction. An exercise in which Tonick has each owner lead their dog past two squeak toys - the toys symbolizing stimuli such as a dropped food tray or a dropped bottle of pills in a hospital setting - without the dog touching the toys, enforcing and preparing the dogs for similar exercises they will have to successfully complete to pass the test. Crystal, a 3-year-old Dalmatian, and her owner Lisa Nickerson, 13, have been working with Eileen since Crystal was 6 months old. "We're not sure where Crystal will be assigned once she passes the test. From her cautious disposition, we're thinking they may place her in a hospital setting," said Sandra Nickerson, Lisa's mother. "She could be the bright spot in a very sick patient's day." When assigned, dogs can be placed at schools, retirement facilities, hospitals and child crisis centers, depending on their personalities and their prominent obedience skills. Owners accompany their dogs to each and every session, and stand close watch. Jill Van Dierendonck, and 9-month-old beagle Barney, are looking forward to the opportunities ahead of them after the six-week class ends and Barney takes a shot at the test. "My husband and I joke that Barney has never met a stranger, because he's friendly and loves every single person he meets," Van Dierendonck said. "I really believe that all dogs have a purpose and a calling in life, and this happens to be Barney's." The organization supporting, insuring and placing therapy dogs is the Delta Society, which those interested can learn more about online at www.DeltaSociety.org. Tonick is instructing the dog therapy classes Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. at the Pecos Community Center, along with a basic obedience class at 8 a.m. She can be reached at (480) 332-8211 or at etonick@cox.net. Ahwatukee Foothills resident Lisa Di Pietro is an intern this summer for the AFN. She is a student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

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