Brooke Terpening joins The Stiletto Gang

Hello to The Stiletto Gang members and readers! I never saw myself joining a gang, but here goes!  My first blog shares an important aspect of my life outside of writing. I look forward to connecting with you!  ~ Author Brooke Terpening


March 22, 2024, 2:32 pm.  People gathered in the corner of the Boulder King Soopers parking lot and bowed their heads in a minute of silence. Behind them, ten trees stood witness to the tragedy of ten senseless deaths. Moving among the employees, friends, and family were three therapy dog teams. Some people wiped away tears as they hugged a dog; others smiled and thanked the handlers for being there for them. In turn, the dogs accepted each person, understanding their needs.

I was honored to be one of those teams. My labradoodle Teagan and I have been with Boulder Strong Comfort Dogs since the shooting massacre at our local grocery store three years ago. The Comfort Dogs are experienced teams, certified with a national organization. Additionally, they must have served at least one year visiting in hospitals and medical facilities.

Teagan at Boulder Police Department

Our dogs go wherever needed to relieve stress and anxiety. First responders, police, and district attorneys look forward to our visits. Seniors at assisted living facilities often are unable to have a pet and suffer from loneliness. I find noncommunicative people will open up to a furry face. A late-stage Alzheimer’s patient reminisced about her own animals. An autistic boy’s parents were amazed when he spoke for the first time in months to my dog.

At Colorado University, our “canine counselors” lift the spirits of homesick students preparing for exams. They snuggle, clown, and pose for selfies. Some students even plan their schedules around the visits and are regulars. One graduate level computer science student attended over ten therapy dog events in one and half years. Another remarked, “This is the best part of exams!”

Each dog develops a fan club. Many have become quite famous on campus. They are a bit like a cross between a super-hero and a rock star—they wear a cape, a.k.a. a vest, and carry their own “business” cards. At hospitals, nurses collect the cards and keep special treats for the visits.

Because the dog wears a vest, many people assume they are service animals. While working with Teagan, I’m often stopped by a stranger, who asks, “May I pet your dog?”

And the answer is an unequivocal yes. Unlike a service dog, which is trained to perform a task for only their owner, a therapy dog’s job is to put smiles on faces and provide comfort for everyone. These dogs and their handlers undergo a rigorous testing process to earn certification with established organizations. To serve in a hospital, veterinarians perform behavioral and psychological evaluations to ensure the dog can handle startling noises, unusual movements, and sudden emotional outbursts.

Often, the next question is, “What makes a good therapy dog?”

Any breed can excel at this work, but all share certain characteristics. Basic obedience skills are a must. Obedience can be taught, but you can’t teach a loving nature and calmness in crowds. They must tolerate dozens of strangers petting them during a visit. As a handler, I need to be alert to signs of stress in my dog and know when to take a break.

Some visits are harder than others. Several years ago, I was visiting a hospital with my first therapy dog, Mango. I knocked on a partially closed door and saw a young woman in bed eating a meal. A tray, dishes, coloring books, pencils, and notebooks lay scattered across her bed. A visitor sat quietly in a corner. I expected them to decline the visit, but to my surprise, the patient dropped her fork and exclaimed, “I need to see the dog.”

Mango at Tree at Life Boulder Resource Center

She smiled, excitedly cleared off her bed, and asked if Mango could join her. I placed him beside her, and she wrapped her arms around him. Mango snuggled closer and put his head across her lap. She stroked him and didn’t speak for several minutes. Then, she whispered to him how much she missed her dog but pets weren’t allowed in hospice care.

She wished she could have one, because, unlike others in long-term hospice, she was still in a wheelchair and could take it outside. She rocked Mango gently in the dimly lit room while her visitor watched with a small smile. The visitor, the young woman explained, was her roommate, also in hospice.

Her eyes glistened (as did mine) when she repeatedly said this visit was just what she needed. She buried her face in Mango’s fur and hugged him hard while a nurse administered pain medication through her port. While the medicine lulled her, I quietly moved Mango out the door.

Yes, scientific studies show petting a dog or cat will increase endorphins, reduce stress, and lower blood pressure. But more than that, a therapy dog will look directly into your soul with loving eyes. Maybe, just maybe, the best medicine is medicine for the soul. And sometimes that medicine is nothing more than wrapping your arms around a dog.

About the Author:  Brooke Terpening, a technology geek, semi-retired attorney, and crime fiction buff, lives and writes in the Rocky Mountain Front Range. She’s had a life-long affair with mysteries and computers. After earning a Master’s Degree in Information and Computer Science, she worked as a software engineer and director for various startups in North Carolina, the Bay Area, and Colorado. Development of several software patents led her to law school with the aim of becoming a patent attorney herself. Along the way, she took a life-changing detour into criminal defense. When she left Florida and legal work behind, she studied the craft of writing in Denver’s Lighthouse Book Project. Since then her writing has won multiple contests and awards for her unpublished crime novel and short stories.


10 replies
  1. Rhonda
    Rhonda says:

    Great post, Brooke! When I worked at the DA’s office, furry companions visited the victim witness room and even helped calm child victims during testimony. I’m so in awe of the work you do.

  2. Kathleen Donnelly
    Kathleen Donnelly says:

    I loved this post, Brooke. I feel honored to have met Teagan. She is such a special dog! The work you do is amazing and I’m in awe. Thanks for such a great post about therapy dogs! 🙂

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