When Zinnia isn’t learning to be a
therapy dog, toys always
come in handy. (Franchesca
Caputo photos)
When Zinnia isn’t learning to be a therapy dog, toys always come in handy. (Franchesca Caputo photos)

As Zinnia, an 11-week-old golden Labrador, makes her way through the hallways of Bishop Maginn High School, students can’t help but pause and smile. Some even gasp. Zinnia is strikingly calm amongst the chaos. Most miraculously, all respect her and the rules that come with training a puppy.
Although it’s nearly impossible to be stern with what her owner, Jon Katz, lovingly refers to as a ‘little monster,’ students must not allow jumping up or nibbling of fingers, and perhaps, most importantly, there are no treats if Zinnia behaves in this manner.

For the past four weeks, Zinnia has been visiting Bishop Maginn’s Writers’ Workshop class every Wednesday. Katz has written numerous books about training pups to be therapy dogs.

So far, three students in Katz ‘s workshop — Grace Ryan, Katie Louis and Gay Blue — have volunteered to be on the Zinnia’s ‘Training Squad,’ where they learn the ins and outs of training a young dog for hospice care. Last Wednes­day, students took turns, with Katz at their side, instructing each to speak clearly and forcefully when giving a command to Zinnia, but never to yell as it will get her too excited. As the students obliged, the young dog remained remarkably calm, that is when she wasn’t pouncing on the toys laid out for her.

Katz’s inspiration for his New York Times Bestseller, “Izzy and Lenore,” also served as his real-life inspiration to take up training therapy dogs.
About eight years ago, Katz — who owns Bedlam Farm, a 17-acre-spread with his wife, Maria, in Cambridge that is home to a handful of donkeys, sheep, barn cats and chickens — received a phone call from a local county hospice, seeking dogs to participate in their program. He decided to bring Izzy, an abandoned border collie whom Katz adopted and described as “very sharp,” to a hospice in Fort Edwards, where a woman with dementia, bound to her bed and suffering with bouts of anger, refused to cooperate with staff.

“Nobody could touch her because she was so angry, she would fight and they couldn’t give her   medicine, they couldn’t change her clothes,” Katz said.

Without any training, Izzy jumped on the bed and lay next to the woman. Moments later, the woman put her hand on Izzy’s head. Simultaneously the woman’s anger disappeared.

“As long as her hand was on his head, they could change her, give her medication, and do all that,” Katz said, “I was kind of amazed by that, the difference that he made to her.”

The students at Bishop Maginn and Zinnia mutually benefit from the arrangement, as well.

Sue Silverstein Gilligan, director of campus ministry and community service at Bishop Maginn, says oftentimes students come from families who can’t afford a dog.

“A lot of these kids could never have a dog because they’re lucky they can put food on their own tables,” Silverstein Gilligan said.

“You see the kids light up when they see a dog, it mixes up their routine and makes them feel better,” Katz added.

Many students who come from different backgrounds may find dogs overwhelmingly scary.

“I like working with kids who are kind of nervous around dogs. She can calm them down and (they can) trust it a bit,” Katz said.

As for Zinnia, Katz says training within the confines of a high school environment, especially at Bishop Maginn, will only contribute to her becoming an amazing therapy dog.

“I’ve been to other places in Albany, and I’ve never been in a school that has this feeling of warmth and safety and affection, the kids all come up and tell me how safe they feel here,” Katz said, “People talk all the time about doing good work, but they do it here. So it’s a good place to train her, it’s a good environment.”

Within two years, Katz aspires to bring Zinnia to a variety of hospice centers to spread joy to the elderly.

“I think it’s going to work out,” said Katz, with Zinnia cradled in his arms. “You did great today, kid.”