York County's schools, court depend on the soothing powers of comfort dogs


Harriet Hombach said she's a chauffeur.

It's her family of three dogs that does the real work.

On a rainy Thursday, the Mount Wolf resident was rounding up her brood for their latest outing — a visit to play with some local students.

"Too bad it's raining," she said. "The students love running with the dogs. It's a great way to get exercise."

For over a decade, Hombach has been a volunteer with Keystone Pet Enhancement Therapy Services, an organization that offers therapy or "comfort" dogs to those looking for consolation and a good smile.

The Lancaster-based service organization provides programs in the greater York area.

The incorporation of comfort dogs isn't only limited to schools and nursing homes. Pennsylvania's court system is also taking notice.

One-third of the state's 60 judicial districts have reported the use of therapy dogs in dependency courts or are implementing programs to incorporate them, according to statistics released by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

"The use of comfort dogs can help bring about a major change in how we meet the emotional needs of all involved in the child dependency system," said Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer in the release.

Comfort or therapy dogs come in all shape and sizes. Their main purpose is to serve as a source of comfort to those enduring a difficult situation.

York County's courts added a member of their own in 2013. Buster, a black Labrador retriever, was "hired" to provide help to defendants who were part of the county's treatment court system.

Buster went through six months of training, starting as a puppy, to earn the position.

More than dogs: People often confuse comfort dogs with service dogs, but they perform two distinct functions. Therapy dogs are specially trained to offer comfort, companionship and affection to those in need of a friendly presence, said Karen Gerth, founder of KPETS.

Service dogs, or companion dogs, work with a human partner who has a disability.

To qualify as a comfort dog team, the dog and the handler undergo training, and the team is certified in programs offered through national organizations.

Gerth started her organization more than 10 years ago, when she saw a need to connect service pets to those in need.

In addition to dogs, the organization also has cats, a therapy pig and a miniature horse.

Making progress: Using local donations, the organization makes regular visits and is hoping to expand services with the help of more trained volunteers.

They also work with officials to visit after police calls to help children who might be victims of abuse.

"It's a great connection there, to help out with something that is traumatic," Gerth said. "We are now working to get that started."

Hombach said the best part of her job is watching people bond with the dogs.

During a visit to one school, a young boy was terrified of the dogs, she said.

"He barricaded himself in a corner with a table in front of himself to keep the dogs away," she said. After "about six months of observing the other students pet and walk the dogs around the room, he finally started to pet Corky, but only on his rump, not near his head."

After another four months, the boy patted Corky's head, and another four months later, he came and walked Corky around the room.

Homback said she was mesmerized.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the room," she said.

— Reach Sara Blumberg at sblumberg@yorkdispatch.com.