ELLINGTON, Conn. (AP) — In 1998, Alice Quinn was still throwing herself into her work in an effort to stay occupied after losing her husband to a car accident three years earlier. She was director of the K-9 Education Center in Newington when he died. A year later, she was working at Bolton Veterinary Hospital as a veterinary technician and dog trainer.
During that time she worked many overnight emergency shifts by herself, but she would also often have the company of veterinarian and hospital founder Allan Leventhal, who would come in to check on his cases. They bonded easily.
"He always had an interest in how animals affect people," she says.
Although she was training dogs at work, Quinn had recently lost her own and she wanted another, a working dog she could train to do just about everything.
"I was looking for a young one that I could live with and train," she says. "I started looking online for shepherd-type dogs."
That fall, in a Massachusetts shelter, she found Liza. There were other dogs, but the little 12-week-old German shepherd stood out.
The dog's eyes grabbed Quinn's attention. There was just something about the way Liza looked at her.
Training has to begin when dogs are young, and it typically takes a few years, Quinn says. She began Liza on her training, and at about 3 years old she was a working search and rescue dog aiding in the recovery effort at New York City's ground zero following the Sept. 11 attacks.
By that time, Quinn, a certified professional dog trainer with a doctorate in psychology, was no longer a veterinary technician but was training dogs full time at the animal hospital while also seeing pets with behavioral problems.
"She has vast knowledge," Bolton Veterinary Hospital assistant manager Joan Langdo says of Quinn. "She's had a lot of schooling, and she reads animals very well. She definitely loves them, but she has a lot of skill and knows the theory behind what they're doing and why."
Some of the behavioral problems Quinn has treated in dogs include eating through walls, constant barking and what she calls "Velcro dog," or a dog that won't leave its owner's side.
Her most unforgettable case, however, was a Rottweiler named Baron who was so obsessed with swimming that, when his owners left the house, he would break out of his crate, push through the screen of an open second-floor window and jump from the window into the pool.
"My first thought was, 'Is he okay?' But the dog was fine, and this was something he did repeatedly," Quinn says. "We solved that problem by having them increase the dog's exercise and letting him swim in the pool once in a while."
She laughs and adds, "They learned to keep the window closed."
It's this kind of behavior consultation along with modification programs that Quinn, who no longer works at the animal hospital, offers at Faithful Friends Canine Academy at 100 West Road, which had its grand opening Jan. 19.
Present at the opening were three golden retrievers, owned by two women from Newtown, that Quinn had certified to be therapy dogs the Saturday following Christmas. She says they'll begin work in the Sandy Hook community once things quiet down.
"It's popular work for golden retrievers. They're super personable. They love people," she says. "They'll be a constant presence there and can go into schools on a regular basis."
Quinn is well acquainted with the value of therapy dogs. In the early 2000s, she was battling cancer and so was Allan Leventhal, who had become her mentor.
While he was sick, she says, the office manager's dog, Cedar, would frequently visit him.
The positive responses humans have to therapy dogs are widely documented and include improved physical and emotional functioning, reduced blood pressure and reduced stress, according to the National Institutes of Health National Library of Medicine.
"Cedar came over once a week," says Leventhal's daughter, Kim. "He loved it. She would come in the house and go right to him and nuzzle up to him, lean on him." After each visit, Kim says, her father would be noticeably more peaceful.
In August 2002, Leventhal succumbed to his cancer. At the same time, Quinn began recovering from hers. In 2005, she founded Allan's Angels Therapy Dogs at the animal hospital, a chapter of the nonprofit organization The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, in his honor. Cedar, who has since died, was the first therapy dog to join the ranks of Allan's Angels.
Quinn has been cancer free since 2007 — "Knock on wood," she says — but she has other health issues that could use the help of a service dog. Liza, whom Quinn lovingly calls a "once in a lifetime dog that comes along," died four years ago, but there's a new helper-in-training in Quinn's life: 18-month-old golden retriever Faith.
"I needed a dog who could alert me when I was having a seizure or an episode, and she instinctively started doing that at about four months old. She was amazing," Quinn says.
"Amazing" is the same word Kim Leventhal uses to describe Quinn's kinship, and ability, with animals.
"She takes the leash and it's like magic," she says. "The dog just knows. She can see a dog, a puppy, whatever, and within 15 or 20 seconds, she can peg what the personality is."
Quinn's plan for the academy, which currently has two trainers and two assistants, is to offer primarily family dog training — class titles include "Surviving Puppyhood" ($180) and "Best Friend Basics" ($200) — as well as to certify service dogs for military veterans with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The grand scheme is to work with the shelters and pounds to temperament test and find dogs that have been abandoned or given up that may have the right personality or temperament to pass the public access test, and use those dogs," she says. "It's kind of like saving each other."
Says Kim of how her father might feel about the academy if he were alive today, "He would be head over heels about it."
Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com