Above: David Howard initially got involved with dog therapy in 2016, after adopting a pair of rescue dogs, Two Socks and Liza. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.
IF YOU READ DAVID HOWARD'S BIO on the High Desert Therapy Dogs website, you’ll be pulled into a story involving a log cabin, Hollywood, and Lassie. The story is fake (mostly), but Howard’s sense of humor is not. In fact, his ability to conjure lightness and fun—in difficult situations especially—is a gift, one he has been able to manifest as co-founder and “vice president of visiting” for the all-volunteer Albuquerque nonprofit organization.
“He’s always smiling,” says Clint Wolf, Howard’s colleague and friend. “He takes the time to work with people, to share his dogs, and he has a very solid, vested interest in making sure that we stand out as one of the premier dog therapy organizations in New Mexico.”
About a month after High Desert Therapy Dogs began, in spring 2020, COVID-19 shut down all in-person visits at the hospitals, schools, and other venues where volunteers and their therapy dogs provide comfort and support.
“From one standpoint, it was very challenging to form a therapy dog organization in the midst of the pandemic. In another way, it was the most opportune time,” says Howard, who also runs his own business, Linear Point Engineering and Consulting. “With visiting suspended, it left us with free time to get off the ground and get it done right.”
A Houston native who grew up in Missouri, Howard came to know New Mexico while working as a defense subcontractor that partnered with Sandia National Laboratories. Twenty-one years ago he moved to Albuquerque, where he lives with his wife, Sandra Adondakis. Howard initially got involved with dog therapy in 2016, soon after he and Adondakis adopted a pair of rescue dogs, Two Socks and Liza, and took them to basic obedience training. A trainer recommended Two Socks for therapy, and the Pomeranian-sheltie mix (named after the wolf in Howard’s favorite movie, Dances with Wolves) became certified.
In March, Howard partnered with Presbyterian Healthcare Services’ Vaccination Hub, a mass vaccination site in northeast Albuquerque that provided free COVID-19 shots to more than 73,000 people between March 3 and June 26. A team of 15 handlers and their therapy dogs provided support at the site, with at least two dogs present nearly every day to comfort patients after they received their vaccines.
“Everyone coming in was excited to get a vaccine,” says Jocelyn Amberg, site director of the Vaccination Hub and a nurse manager at Presbyterian. “But there’s a lot of needle aversion and needle anxiety out there.”
Often, the after-shot waiting period was the most stressful for patients. Some dogs performed tricks, while others just sat with patients to help them pass the time. “The dogs were great,” Amberg says. “David just knows when someone needs to pet the dogs.”
The nurses and other volunteers benefited, too. “A lot of the nurses were coming in from the hospitals, and what was going on in their home units was stressful,” she says. “It was very meaningful and really nice to see all the dogs.”
The organization now has 35 dogs, with some volunteers responsible for more than one animal. “I’ve seen dogs really affect people’s lives,” Howard says. “All dogs are therapy dogs. Some are just certified. Some are just registered. But all dogs have that capacity.”