Therapy dog trainers host 'Barks for Beers' fundraiser

There are 12 breweries participating in this year's Barks for Beers fundraiser, which helps raise money for Austin nonprofit Divine Canines. There are 12 breweries participating in this year's Barks for Beers fundraiser, which helps raise money for Austin nonprofit Divine Canines.[/caption]

Two of Austin's top interests—dogs and craft beer—combine in May to create a monthlong charity event called Barks for Beers.

From left: Divine Canines volunteers Christine Springer and Heidi Armstrong are joined by Mike Pizinger, the group’s chair-elect, and Brian Smittle, owner of Thirsty Planet Brewing Co. Therapy dogs (from left) Bella, Jasper, Amstel and Shiner join the group at Thirsty Planet during last year’s Barks for Beers event. From left: Divine Canines volunteers Christine Springer and Heidi Armstrong are joined by Mike Pizinger, the group’s chair-elect, and Brian Smittle, owner of Thirsty Planet Brewing Co. Therapy dogs (from left) Bella, Jasper, Amstel and Shiner join the group at Thirsty Planet during last year’s Barks for Beers event.[/caption]

Divine Canines, a local nonprofit that trains therapy dogs and provides free therapy dog services, partnered with a dozen Austin-area breweries for its second annual fundraiser. All participants and their pups can go to each of the breweries between May 1 and 31 and receive one free beer with purchase of a Divine Canines pint glass. The $20 glass, which goes on sale this week, can be purchased at the breweries or at various retailers.

"We realized there was high overlap" between beer enthusiasts and dog owners, said Mike Pizinger, Divine Canines board chair-elect and organizer of the event.

The event increased from eight breweries in its first year to 12 participants in 2015. Participation last year was double what the group anticipated, and this year Divine Canines anticipates selling four times as many pint glasses as last year, said Pizinger, who credits Thirsty Planet Brewing Co. owner Brian Smittle for helping to inspire the idea and connecting him with other area breweries.

"The feedback we got from last year was, 'Do it again, and make it longer,'" Pizinger said.

The event also proved to be a social event for the nonprofit's volunteers and their human handlers.

"These owners are always on the job and always with their dogs and never get to socialize with each other," said Executive Director Max Woodfin, the group's only paid staffer. "This year they'll have five weekends to go out and meet at breweries."

All pet volunteers have successfully passed the organization's five-week training course, which is held four to five times per year. There are no age, weight or breed restrictions for new therapy dog trainees, although new recruits are typically 2 years old or older, said Pizinger, whose dog Amstel joined Divine Canines in 2011 two years after gaining therapy certification. His other dog Shiner became certified in 2012.

In total, Divine Canines has up to 80 therapy dogs and their owners that regularly visit more than 40 schools, nursing homes and public and private facilities throughout Central Texas. In fact, their therapy services have proven so popular there is often a waiting list for new locations seeking Divine Canines' services, Woodfin said.

"We've become victims of our own success," Woodfin said, estimating he receives two to three calls for therapy dogs per week. "The more people hear about our services, the more requests we get."

Woodfin cites one example of a recently graduated ranch dog named Simon that "invited" one Austin State Hospital resident to his Divine Canines graduation, which is hosted at the hospital. "[The patient] came out their room and cheered for Simon," Woodfin said. "He hadn't been out of his room for weeks before that."

Divine Canines also serves children who may have previously had a pet before being relocated to SafePlace, which hosts programs that protect victims of sexual and domestic violence.

"A lot of times those kids are craving that animal attention," Pizinger said.

But more dog handler teams are needed to meet increasing demand. In exchange, Divine Canines has been rewarding volunteers with trading cards—similar to baseball cards—with pictures and stats of each dog.

"This organization has been truly fortunate to have never strayed from its mission," Woodfin said. "This board has remained focused on providing our service to people in need, and we've never really strayed from that."
By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.


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