Volunteering for nearly 15 years with her dog Maggie has CPDT-KA Nicole Ellis brimming with Therapy Dog stories to share.

In this 50th episode of Therapy Dog Talk, I spoke with Nicole Ellis, a Los Angeles based Certified Professional Dog Trainer, who has many Therapy Dog stories to share about her experiences volunteering with her dog Maggie over the last several years. As Nicole shares on her website, Maggie, a Bichon Mini Poodle mix rescued from North Central Animal Shelter in Los Angeles and now nearing 15, “knows over one hundred behaviors and performs at hospitals, charity fundraisers and on TV.” Not only that, but it turns out she recently saved the day in Joshua Tree by finding Nicole’s lost phone, full of Rossi’s puppy photos, due to her scent training and the ability to “Go find Mommy!” Rossi is Nicole’s 5 year old Cavapoochon, a Cavalier Poodle Bichon mix, who enjoys Fast Cat, is getting back into scent work and has also done Therapy Dog work—though we focus on Nicole’s work with Maggie in this episode.

Nicole’s primary goal as a dog trainer is to help others to learn how to do more with their dogs and identify what that right fit may be for their dog and their lifestyle. With her own dogs, Nicole doesn’t have any rigid goals but instead focuses on having fun with her dogs while continuously growing herself alongside them. She is a celebrity dog trainer with a long list of impressive credentials including Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), Fear Free certified, American Kennel Club CGC-evaluator and enjoys working with her dogs and others on media productions such as Amazon’s The Pack.

While Nicole also trains her clients’ dogs for Therapy Dog and Service Dog roles, our focus in this episode is on the many Therapy Dog stories that have fueled and inspired her throughout her experiences volunteering with Maggie across the country whether near home through Dream Street, Shriners and Safe House, in Nashville on stage at Vanderbilt or visiting a friend on a long hospital stay in Las Vegas. It’s hard to do justice to her stories in a summary, so I highly encourage you to take the time to listen to, or watch, this one—you’re not going to want to miss it. (In fact, if you watch the video you can meet Maggie and Rossi as well as Rossi’s repertoire of tricks scattered throughout our conversation.)

If you’re ready to learn more about Nicole and Maggie’s many experiences as a volunteer Therapy Dog team, let’s dive in:

In this episode, we discuss …

  • What inspired Nicole to start volunteering with her dog.
  • How she decided which organizations were a good fit.
  • Why she does different activities with Maggie than with her other dog, Rossi.

Key moments you won’t want to miss:

  • [01:38] Nicole gives us an overview of her professional work including her experience on Amazon’s The Pack, training Therapy Dogs, Service Dogs and basic obedience training. Her goal with training is to get people to do more with their dogs.
  • [02:27] Nicole mentions the importance of finding what your dog enjoys and working towards that goal.
  • [02:44] We discuss her dogs Maggie and Rossi learning scentwork including Rossi locating her sock in an array of tote bags and how Maggie saved the day by finding her phone in Joshua Tree with the cue “Go find Mommy!”
  • [03:50] Nicole reflects on how her dad worked in mental health and how that influence combined with her love of volunteering led to her doing Therapy Dog work together with one of her good friends.
  • [04:27] Nicole shares how her beginnings as a dog trainer for others overlapped with her training her own dog Maggie for therapy work and how it was a good fit for her personality.
  • [05:03] I compare Maggie’s hair to Abu in Aladdin and we bond over my Disney reference.
  • [05:25] Nicole begins to share her Therapy Dog stories with how she saw the impact Maggie had on her grandma.
  • [05:50] Nicole reflects how she was in the hospital for two weeks in 2020 and how she wanted to go home so badly because she missed her dogs. She realized that if Therapy Dogs had been there it would’ve helped her through it.
  • [06:31] Maggie enjoys doing tricks but beyond that she really enjoys cuddling with others. Nicole noticed how Maggie would get so excited to go on these visits and connect with others and it meant. alot to her.
  • [07:00] Nicole share about a camp through Dream Street Foundation, for terminally ill children, she used to volunteer at with her friend and their dogs. Each year the kids would remember them from the last year and would share the impact that their interactions made for them.
  • [07:41] In addition to hospitals and nursing homes, Nicole and Maggie volunteered at Safe House, a program for children who’s mothers escaped abusive situations, where they would work with a professional therapist as part of their therapy. They would relate Maggie to their therapy and the kids were able to interact with her.
  • [08:51] Nicole shares stories about their experience flying to Nashville to do a performance at Vanderbilt Carell Monroe where they have a full stage that was broadcast to every room. After the performance many came down from mtheir rooms to pet Maggie, give her a high five, or ask their questions.
  • [09:20] Nicole shares a personal story of a friend who was missing her dogs while in the hospital with brain cancer and not doing well. She was able to work with the hospital to take Maggie and visit for a few days and the doctor told her that he had never seen her pain levels as low as they were the days she was there. (Her friend survived and is doing great.)
  • [10:28] They once visited a woman at a senior center who told them all about her own dog and Nicole found out later that previous to their visit she hadn’t talked in weeks.
  • [11:03] Nicole continues her Therapy Dog stories with another example from when they volunteered at Shriners’ rehab and participated in their occupational therapy program to help the kids focus on Maggie instead of their own struggles.
  • [12:34] Recently, Nicole and Maggie volunteered at CVF Hope Hospital to provide support for the doctors.
  • [13:00] Nicole reflects on what she considers a hard part of Therapy Dog work that she feels isn’t talked about much which is the commitment required by some organizations and we discuss how different organizations have different requirements and that you’ll need to find the one that’s the best fit for you and your lifestyle.
  • [14:48] When asked what her goals are for her dogs, Nicole shares that Maggie is “basically retired” these days and enjoys hiking and camping while Rossi is currently competing in Fast Cat, getting back into scent work, and has also done Therapy Dog work. Above all, Nicole’s goal is to just have fun with her dogs and continually grow them and herself.
  • [15:30] Nicole shares that Maggie is almost 15 and discusses her care team and how she view it as important to not let training and fitness go for senior dogs as it’s important to keep them mentally stimulated.
  • [16:30] A big part of getting into Therapy Dog work is understanding your dog and if it’s going to be the right thing for them. Nicole advocates that it’s important to know what stresses your dog out and what they enjoy doing and love to do.
  • [16:52] We discuss Service Dogs volunteering as Therapy Dogs and how some organizations allow it while others do not.
  • [17:15] Nicole points out that at some point your dog may change whether that means they used to enjoy Therapy Dog work and don’t anymore or they weren’t a good fit originally but with time it worked out for them.
  • [17:40] A reminder that there so many good things to do with your dog even if Therapy Dog work isn’t a good fit for them as well as a variety of environments within Therapy Dog work.
  • [18:24] We discuss how you need to enjoy the work, too, not just your dog.
  • [19:08] Nicole shares how Maggie’s activities, including movie production work, have evolved as a senior dog and how she no longer is involved in long days on set or things that she feels will be too stressful on her. She also discusses how she manages her arthritis with Assisi LOOP®, chriopractic, accupuncture and joint supplements.
  • [20:06] Nicole’s advice to those interested in becoming a Therapy Dog team is to know your dog’s stress signals including Lili Chin’s book Doggie Language, walking them around. apark to see how they react to kids and observing their behavior when interacting with other people. She also recommends to train a settle on a mat and start with CGC.
  • [21:37] A reminder to be kind to yourself and your dog while pursuing Therapy Dog work as testing can be stressful.
  • [22:56] In her final Therapy Dog story of the episode, Nicole shares an example of a dog she worked with on Amazon’s The Pack who exhibited intense love of people and would be a great fit to help others.

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I do. Give it a watch or a listen and then let me know in the community which part you found the most helpful!

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