Dog lovers can help local organization earn national recognition

Russell Blair | Posted: Monday, February 20, 2012 5:21 pm

WALLINGFORD - Dog lovers can nominate a therapy dog of their choice for a national award while also helping out a local non-profit organization.

Soul Friends, Inc., a Wallingford-based pet therapy organization which specializes in helping children, was chosen as one of the charity partners for the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards.

"About 18 months ago I had a conversation with someone from the American Humane Association about pet therapy in general," said Kate Nicoll, founder and CEO of Soul Friends. "When it came time to pick a charity partner, they must have remembered that conversation. It's an honor to be chosen."

Users can log on to www.herodogawards.org to nominate pets in a variety of categories; Nicoll is listed under the therapy dogs category. If a dog nominated under Nicoll's charity reaches the finals, the charity will get $5,000. If the dog wins the grand prize, Soul Friends will get an additional $10,000.

"We're looking to do more research," Nicoll said. "We want to boost our efforts to do research and programming."

Nicoll said that currently, the only grant funding Soul Friends has is a small grant from the Petit Family Foundation for an equine therapy program. Being listed in the contest will help her get some national exposure, she said.

Maria Nuzzillio, a board member at Soul Friends, said the work Nicoll does is extremely valuable.

"When you see the kid's faces light up when they see the pet they work with, it's very touching," she said.

Nicoll said the bonds that the clients build with the animals help them to overcome their own struggles. She nominated Muffin, one of the service dogs who works for Soul Friends, for the award. Muffin, a 9-year-old terrier mix, recently went blind but has continued her work.

"She rolls over, she sniffs, wags her tail," Nicoll said. "They get a sense of empathy with her, they give her a lot of love."

Nuzzillio said Muffin's story was inspirational.

"It shows that if you do have a handicap, you can still make a difference," she said. "This dog is totally blind, yet it brings comfort to a child. It's beautiful."

Nicoll said it was symbolic that one of her clients was recently guiding Muffin through the office, reciprocating the help that he had received.

Muffin has helped "over 4,500 children living with loss, trauma, grief and social-emotional challenges," according to her nomination.

Nominations for the Hero Dog Awards are open through the end of March 26. The nomination consists of basic information, a photo and a short write-up about the dog. Voting, by the general public, begins on April 1 on www.herodogawards.org. Finalists will travel to Los Angeles in October for the finals which will air on the Hallmark Channel.

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