In recent years, it has become more commonplace to see therapy dogs in schools and throughout the community, but it’s not often you see one on the sidelines of a high school football game.
Like most dogs, Rogan, a 7-month-old golden retriever puppy, enjoys running outdoors, fishing, playing with toys and belly scratches. But, since he was 8 weeks old, Rogan has been training for a more important role — to become a therapy dog for athletes — in the training room and on the sidelines.
Handlers Sarah Knop and T.J. Lutz both have a background playing and competing as high school and collegiate athletes, and both have experienced the mental and physical highs and lows associated with sports injuries. So, when Knop made the decision to become an athletic trainer five years ago, she said she made it her mission to find ways for recovery to be less stressful on athletes.
“I was an athlete in college, so I had that dual athlete and athletic trainer identity,” Knop said. “Just through my own experiences of getting hurt, I realized what it was like to suffer an injury and lose that identity as an athlete. It’s pretty stressful — you have a lot riding on that identity.”
Knop said, that’s where Rogan came in. When she and Lutz, who are engaged to be married in the summer of 2020, made the decision to get a dog, they knew it would not only be a Golden Retriever, but a therapy dog as well. In June, at just two months old, Rogan began obedience training, and then he started therapy training at the beginning of September.
“He can hopefully work with athletes of some caliber…and help ease that anxiety surrounding injuries for them,” Knop said. “He’s a calm puppy — he definitely has the personality for this.”
Multiple colleges and universities across the United States, including the University of North Carolina and Johns Hopkins University, have been utilizing therapy dogs with their athletic teams after learning of the physical and psychological benefits. Numerous studies have shown that having a therapy dog present in an athletic training or hospital room can reduce blood pressure as well as the amount of time spent in recovery.
Lutz said that Rogan often attends training classes with dogs that are one year old and older, but because of his calm demeanor, Rogan was encouraged to continue with training at just 6 months old.
“We got very lucky with his personality and they recognized that as experienced trainers,” Lutz said.
With the couple’s differing work schedules, they are able to spend more time training. Knop works with Rogan during the day and Lutz works with him in the evenings. The couple said, it will be about 30 weeks until Rogan is fully certified, if he passes training and testing. They have spent hours teaching him different skills, including how to ignore distractions, which involves anything from sounds to surrounding him with treats and commanding him to, “leave it.”
The final test Rogan will need to pass in order to be certified as a canine good citizen through the American Kennel Club involves remaining in the “stay” position in the doorway of a store for three minutes after his owners exit the business. If he is successful, Knop is excited about his potential.
“It’s amazing some of the things he can accomplish,” Knop said. “I would love to see him work with athletes — whether it’s athletes in the high school or kids going through physical therapy or long term rehab. Some injuries take as long as six to nine months to heal, if he could bring them comfort, that would be awesome.”
Knop and Lutz said they have already noticed that Rogan has shown a natural attraction to children and individuals with disabilities, citing instances where Rogan has offered extra affection to a child with autism or a store greeter in a wheelchair.
“We do try to take him out in public as much as we can and get him socialized,” Knop said. “We try to bring him to some of the games, when it’s allowed, and there are a lot of stores that are pet-friendly.”
One of the most important messages the couple hopes to convey is the importance of knowing the difference between a service dog and a therapy or emotional support dog.
“A service dog is trained specifically to work with someone who has a disability of some sort and they [the dog] work with that person solely,” Knop said. “Whereas, a therapy dog works with the general public in areas of public access like schools and hospitals, nursing homes and rehab centers.”
In either case, whenever approaching any animal wearing a vest, Knop said it is important to remember to ask the animal’s handler for permission before attempting to approach or pet the animal.
Lutz said he often asks children if they would like to help train Rogan, allowing them a way to interact with the dog and learn proper therapy dog etiquette at the same time.
Knop said she often asks the same question of athletes that may not be actively playing in a game.
“Athletes that are on the sideline or have to sit out for a little bit, [I’ll ask], ‘Would you like to help us train? Let’s give him a command,’” Knop said. “They feel involved as well — it just gives them a sense of purpose.”
Although Knop is currently employed by Owensboro Health and is the athletic trainer for Apollo High School, Rogan is not affiliated with either organization.
To view Rogan’s journey to becoming a therapy dog, follow him on Instagram @rogan_thegolden