Bring a Dog to Heal

Alumna Moschell Coffey ’08 knows the power of therapy dogs to help people heal.

Jeremy Coffey ’08 and Moschell Coffey ’08 with their Whoodles, Emma (left) and Finn. Jeremy Coffey ’08 and Moschell Coffey ’08 with their Whoodles, Emma (left) and Finn. There is something intrinsic to the nature of dogs that speaks to us as humans—they accept us, unconditionally, for all our faults, and look up to us all the same. But they can do more than that.

As Moschell Coffey ’08 puts it, “Dogs help people heal.” Coffey said that in the course of a TEDx Talk at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but that’s more than just a line in a speech. It’s her career. More importantly, it’s her mission statement.

Coffey is director of strategic growth, communications, and operations at the New York City-based The Good Dog Foundation, a nonprofit that trains and certifies therapy dogs (and their handlers), and then dispatches them to disaster sites around the country and to schools, hospitals, and community facilities throughout the Northeast to assist a range of people from victims of the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings to cancer patients and students learning to read.

But when Coffey set off from Rollins to New York City after graduation—she earned a master’s degree in public administration from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service—a life working with dogs wasn’t foremost on her mind, or anywhere near that, actually.

While studying at NYU, she and her husband got a dog, a soft-coated wheaten terrier-poodle mix (the mix is called a Whoodle) named Emma. “When we were at the dog park, she was such a good-natured dog, living a spoiled New York City dog life. We wanted to give back.”

Someone at the dog park asked her if she ever considered making Emma a therapy dog. She and her husband, Jeremy Coffey ’08, enrolled Emma in a three-month certification program, offered by The Good Dog Foundation. A few months after that, they got Emma’s brother, another Whoodle named Finn. He, too, became a therapy dog.

It was around this time, she says, that she decided she needed a professional change—she had been working for the NYU School of Law’s National Center on Philanthropy and the Law, which looks at the legal aspects of nonprofit law. “I wanted something that made me want to get up in the morning,” she says.

That place, as it turns out, was The Good Dog Foundation, where she began working two years ago and now runs the group’s day-to-day operations and oversees its long-term, strategic development. (She also works at NYU, managing a fellowship for emerging leaders in public service). And the meaning she so coveted comes in the stories she sees every day.

For instance, she recently planned and executed the organization’s annual gala which honored the Manhattan district attorney’s office. There, a prosecutor spoke about a young girl they believed to be the victim of sexual abuse, but wouldn’t talk to prosecutors about it, so nothing could be done. One day, though, the prosecutors asked a Good Dog team to come in. And after sitting with the dog for 45 minutes, the girl opened up about her abuse for the first time.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Coffey says. “This dog just helped give this girl her life back. I’m certainly a believer in the scientific evidence [that therapy dogs help people], but it’s these kinds of anecdotal stories that get me up in the morning.”

Therapy dogs work, she says, because dogs are innately nonjudgmental and comforting, and being around them has been shown to relieve stress and reduce blood pressure. “They’re just there, no matter the circumstances,” she says. “The dog provides you the natural break to be you.”

Her organization has certified more than 1,100 teams of dogs and handlers, who have visited more than 300 partner facilities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, including nursing homes, hospitals, cancer wards, schools, and district attorney’s offices. The dogs also help out with disaster relief—as Coffey’s pups did last year following Hurricane Sandy, when New York City residents were displaced from their homes, and following the Boston Marathon bombings, when The Good Dog Foundation visited with victims, families, and mourners.

In coming years, Coffey hopes to recruit more people to both give and receive therapy dog services, and perhaps more importantly, to increase research on and awareness about therapy dogs and what they can do. As she notes, “This was not a field I was aware of before someone in the dog park told me.”

Dogs Helping Humans Heal: Moschell Coffey at TEDxUMassAmherst