A Spa Where Guests Help Train Service Puppies

A Spa Where Guests Help Train Service Puppies

by Laura Barcella

Long hikes, luxurious massages, and delicious food are a welcome part of what most spa-goers expect when they pack their bags for a stay. But at Sunrise Springs, a resort in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that fuses Eastern and Western therapeutic traditions, guests can take their serenity game to new heights with the help of … puppies.

“We are the one and only program like this in the country—people go to Sunrise Springs [expressly] to see the puppies,” says Jill Felice, founder and program director of the Santa Fe nonprofit Assistance Dogs of the West. Since Sunrise Springs’ 2015 opening, Felice’s organization has partnered with the spa to develop its Puppy Enrichment Program, in which a batch of burgeoning service dogs—and, often, their mother—live on-site, under the care of dedicated staffers. Spa guests can stop in for scheduled sessions of playtime, cuddling, walking, and training with the adorable bundles of energy.

The purpose of the puppy program is multi-faceted. One of its aims is obvious: it helps Sunrise Springs’ guests relax, slow down, and “experience joy” in a serene natural environment. “When you’re petting the puppies, caring for them or cuddling them, there’s a release of oxytocin,” notes Felice.

But guests can also find a different kind of puppy-fueled high: the pleasure of training these future service dogs to trust—and, eventually, help—their human compadres. Visitors’ positive interactions with the dogs help prepare them for a life of companionable service to PTSD-afflicted veterans; people with mental and physical disabilities; and even young crime victims (some ADW dogs become Courthouse Dogs, working to reduce the stress felt by children in difficult courtroom scenarios).

“Sunrise Springs guests really like to know that they’re helpful, that they actually touched the life of a puppy that was going to become a service dog and helped that dog have a good experience with a stranger,” Felice explains.

Assistance Dogs of the West staffers—and, in turn, Sunrise Springs’ guests—exclusively use compassionate training approaches with the pups. Specifically, they follow the relationship-oriented teachings of breeder/trainer Suzanne Clothier’s Enriched Puppy Protocol. “The goal of the enriched puppy protocol is the development of a physically, mentally, and emotionally balanced puppy,” Felice explains. “We are trying to set that puppy up to reach its best potential, and we have to be mindful that we are in a ‘no-fail mission’ kind of state when we place a dog.”

This is why the organization only works with a small number of purpose-bred dogs with specific temperaments. Felice explains, “Some people get upset about purpose-bred dogs because there are so many other dogs out there in the world [looking for homes]. But we’re dealing with crisis response canines, courthouse dogs, dogs with veterans, medical alert dogs, and dogs for mobility issues.”

As a longtime animal-rescue advocate, I am decidedly not a fan of dog breeding. But the work ADW does is important, and I’ve never met a puppy I didn’t like—so I was admittedly pretty excited to meet the dogs during a recent stay at Sunrise Springs. When I showed up at the puppy playroom one morning, I found a locked door with a sign asking guests to remove their shoes and don protective surgeon-style booties to avoid contaminating the puppies’ living space. (Because they’re still too young to be fully vaccinated, proper protocol is critical for their health.)

Inside the play area, I met Britte Holman, an Animal Interaction Supervisor who lives and works with the dogs at Sunrise Springs. As a high school student in the 1990s, Holman helped train service dogs as part of ADW’s innovative Assistance Dog Student Training program. After pursuing animal-care work in college and beyond, Holman reconnected with the organization, and now she lives and breathes all things service-pup. Her canine charges are an unnaturally adorable bunch: four chubby, wrinkly-faced Golden lab puppies, plus Honey Pie, their mellow mother.

After heading outside to try a positive-reinforcement training game with puppy Oliver, I quickly understood the draw of having a program like this at a spa. After a few minutes of playing with Oliver and his happy, healthy buddies Piper, Humphrey, and Audrey, I felt noticeably more relaxed. Sure, I still had looming deadlines weighing over me, but the stress of those deadlines somehow felt less immediate than it had before.

This group of puppies will remain at Sunrise Springs until they’re between four and six months old. After that, they’ll each move in with a trainer to complete their prep for their future lives, and new ADW puppies will arrive at the spa. When the dogs hit the two-year-old mark, Assistance Dogs of the West will place them in their work assignment with an individual or family, or in a therapeutic capacity in a setting like a courtroom, drug treatment facility, or hospital. And ADW doesn’t just arbitrarily assign a dog to whomever shows up first. Felice says they actually let the dogs “pick” their people by carefully observing the interview process and noting who each dog is drawn to. “It makes a big difference in determining how that dog is going to work with them throughout their lives,” Felice notes.

Interested in meeting the puppies at Sunrise Springs? Check out the spa’s website for info. And while you’re visiting, don’t miss the on-site therapeutic furry-feathered Silkie Chickens. (Of course, a massage and some yoga never hurts, either.)

Photo courtesy of Assistance Dogs of the West.

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