Ohio Professor Trains Therapy Dogs, Bringing Comfort One Paw at a Time

Daily Point of Light # 7792 Apr 17, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Lesley Sinwald. Read her story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

When a massive fire ravaged a home in northern Ohio, first responders worked tirelessly to contain the flames and rescue everyone in the family. Despite their best efforts, tragedy struck as a young child lost their life in the blaze. With such devastation rare in this small town, the aftermath left first responders reeling, particularly those with young families of their own. It was then that the therapy dogs of Riley’s Angels and their handlers came to their rescue, providing much-needed comfort and support to ease their shock and trauma.

This situation is just one of many where Riley’s Angels therapy dogs have made a profound impact. Whether comforting a young girl terrified of needles in the emergency room or providing solace to hospice patients in their final days, these dogs and their handlers have been beacons of relief for many in northern Ohio. And at the helm of this effort is the driving force behind Riley’s Angels, Lesley Sinwald.

For nearly three decades, Lesley has dedicated countless hours to training and providing therapy dogs to northern Ohio, while balancing her job as a business professor. It was five years ago that she formalized this passion into Riley’s Angels, named after her first therapy dog. Thanks to Lesley’s tireless efforts and volunteer work, Riley’s Angels now boasts nearly 100 fully certified therapy dog and handler teams, which provide comfort and joy to local schools, hospitals, nursing homes and community events. Five of those teams are certified in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) training, ready to respond in times of crises like shootings and fires.

Lesley watches as a woman hugs therapy dog Charlie after her presentation on the impact of therapy dogs for an association of retired teachers. /Courtesy Lesley Sinwald

One of the most memorable times she saw the impact of therapy dogs was when she brought her first therapy dog, Riley, to a nursing home.

“There was this one gentleman who was in a wheelchair just sitting in a hallway. He was bent over, not even sitting up. Riley kept going over to him and he wasn’t responding at all,” Lesley recalled. “It was kind of awkward because he wasn’t engaged. So, we visited a couple other people, but Riley kept pulling me to go back to him. When we went back to him for the fourth time, he finally lifted his hand and started petting her. Still wasn’t sitting up, still wasn’t speaking.

“But then after we visited some more people, Riley pulled me one more time to go back to him. And when we did, he started petting her right away. He sat up and started telling me about his dog and we had this really nice conversation,” Lesley continued. “We finished up and I went to the nurse’s station and one of the nurses said, ‘You know that gentleman your dog kept pulling you back to? He hasn’t spoken in over a year.’

“Research has shown that dogs impact cortisol levels. There’s been studies done where patients report less pain when they are visited by therapy dogs,” Lesley said. “They have this magic dust to them. It’s truly amazing how dogs can reach people in ways sometimes we can’t.”

Despite the relentless workload and financial challenges of running a nonprofit, Lesley said she finds immense fulfillment, knowing that she’s fulfilling her purpose with Riley’s Angels.

A group photo of Lesley with a cohort of recently graduated therapy dog and handler teams. /Courtesy Lesley Sinwald

“Lesley is Riley’s Angels front and center, seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” said Sandy Hovets, board chairman and handler at Riley’s Angels. “Her whole life is built around what she does for Riley’s Angels, and she never gets a penny. This is all given from her heart.”

At 65 years old, Lesley hopes her story resonates as a testament to the adage, “You’re never too old to follow your dreams.” Looking ahead, she envisions a future for Riley’s Angels where even more therapy dogs and handlers are trained, ensuring that anyone in need of a furry shoulder to lean on or paw to hold has one.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Lesley? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Alicia Lee