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Herndon retiree launches Canine Concierge to provide free dog therapy services

The new Herndon-based nonprofit Canine Concierge aims to offer free therapy dog services to hospitals and other organizations (courtesy Canine Concierge/iStock)

Two golden retrievers will be the stars of a new, Herndon-based nonprofit that aspires to brighten the world with some literal puppy love.

Established at the start of the new year, Canine Concierge Corporation will offer animal-assisted therapy (AAT) services for free to hospitals, nursing homes, senior centers, police departments and other organizations in need throughout Fairfax County.

The idea for the organization came to founder Michael Stokes, a retired information technology contractor, when he encountered a service dog himself while hospitalized in fall 2022.

“It had AAT training, and…it just elevated me,” Stokes recalled in a recent interview. “I mean, my spirit was just incredible, and then, you know, out of the blue, I got flashes [of] just ‘This is what you’re going to do and this is how you are going to do it,’ and then the resources just started to appear.”

The meeting with the service dog came at a fortuitous time for Stokes, who says he had been in the hospital for three months by then and was mourning the unexpected death of Leo, his dog of 14 years. Stokes had rescued Leo while working in Kuwait as a contractor for the U.S. Army.

Hoping to share the feeling of uplift that he got from the service dog’s visit with other people, Stokes began researching how to set up an animal-assisted therapy practice as soon as he got released from the hospital.

The process hasn’t been easy. For instance, after initially planning to work out of a hotel suite as a home-based business, Stokes was told two-and-a-half months later that the hotel’s legal department wouldn’t allow the arrangement.

Instead, Canine Concierge will operate out of a leased Regus space in the McNair area near the Dulles International Airport. The nonprofit recently got a certificate of good standing from the Virginia State Corporation Commission, and now all that’s left is for the IRS to approve its tax-exempt status, a request that has been pending since March, Stokes says.

“That is crucial to the business operation because we need that to apply for grants and also to allow people to get a tax-deductible receipt when they make a donation,” Stokes said. “So, those kind of things, that license is very important, but…it’s out of our control.”

When it officially launches, Canine Concierge will have two AAT-trained golden retrievers from the American Kennel Club named Stella and DaVinci, according to its website. Research has suggested being around pets, particularly dogs, can decrease stress and generally improve people’s mood.

Stokes notes that Leo had always seemed to sense his emotional state, sleeping at the foot of his bed when he felt “normal” and sleeping next to him on a pillow when he felt sick or melancholy.

“They have some innate ability to feel people, and they’re just going to capitalize on that in training,” he said.

Eventually, Canine Concierge intends to convert a hotel suite into a “state-of-the-art facility” for the two dogs, but to reach that point and ensure that services can be provided free of charge, the nonprofit will rely on grants, sponsors and community donations.

The fundraising goal for the first year is $208,000 to cover the training, supplies, marketing and other operating costs. Once its tax-exempt status is approved, donations will be accepted online through Paypal.

Stokes says he can’t wait to take one of the dogs to a hospital for the first time.

“I’m just looking forward to being officially launched, because now, we’re here,” he said. “We’re ready to go.”

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