SUNRISE, Fla. -- The ongoing war between cats and dogs held a ceasefire last week when the Florida Panthers honored members of Canine Assisted Therapy during Saturday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center.
"We are really honored to partner with an organization like Canine Assisted Therapy and are excited about the number of children and veterans throughout the South Florida community that will benefit from their services," Executive Director of the Florida Panthers Foundation Lauren Simone said.
A non-profit organization founded in 2009 by Debra Berger and Joanne Jurgle, Canine Assisted Therapy aims to provide canine companionship for those in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospice organizations.
"We reached over 300,000 lives in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties last year," said Jurgle, who serves as the organization's executive director. "From two-year-olds to 102-year-olds and every population in between, dogs don't judge. They provide unconditional love. No matter where we go or who we visit, the dogs love them just the same as the person next to them."
In the years following its inception, Canine Assisted Therapy has seen steady growth, evolving from a small home office with two therapy teams (Debra and Dillon, her 150-pound leonberger, and Joanne and Chance, her loving golden retriever) to an impressive 2,000 square foot office in Oakland Park, Fla., with 120 certified therapy teams providing services to more than 60 facilities, primarily in South Florida.
"We are able to bring people joy and happiness," Jurgle said. "These are people that have been essentially living in another zone. When the dogs walk into the room, they snap out of it; they come back to reality. It brings them back to a time when they were happy. If it last 30 seconds, then they've had 30 seconds of happiness. If it lasts longer, then that's even better. The time that we give them and the smiles on their faces, that's just so rewarding."
At the heart of Canine Assisted Therapy's success, Jurgle says, is selfless and unwavering commitment of the organization's volunteers and, of course, their loveable, furry companions, which were represented at the game by Coral, a golden retriever, and Cosmo, a havanese.
"It's all volunteers," Jurgle said. "If they can visit once a week, that's great. In some cases, however, some of them get so involved and get to know the people so well that they visit them two or three times a week. It can really become a lifelong relationship."
In an effort to create and cultivate more of relationships, the Florida Panthers Foundation Community Champions Grant Program, presented by Moss Construction and the Moss Foundation, awarded Canine Assisted Therapy with a $10,000 donation to help further their cause.
With that sizeable endowment, the organization plans to place a greater focus on recruiting and training additional therapy teams in order to better service a very special group of people that have long been at the heart of many of the Panthers' own charitable endeavors.
"We would love to get more teams involved with our veterans," Jurgle said. "We feel that they've given us so much and there are so many veterans out there that are alone and have nobody. A visit from a team once a week brightens their day, but it's nothing compared to what they give to us."