Two women sit with two dogs.
Anne Kastl (left) and Merri Hackbarth (right), sit with their own pets, Ellie and Bernie. Bernie (right) has been part of Domesti-PUPS breeding program and some of her puppies have joined the training programs.

Domesti-PUPS is a Lincoln nonprofit organization specializing in training services and therapy dogs. With a rise in demand for therapy dogs, Domesti-PUPS works with several schools, hospitals and businesses to provide pet therapy for their clients. 

According to the Domesti-PUPS website, pet therapy can be meet-and-greet visits, aiding in the emotional leveling of children, helping children read or faith-based. Domesti-PUPS also works on educating the public on service and therapy dogs.  

Domesti-PUPS have dogs working with several different clients, such as St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Hope Spoke, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, UNL Police Department, Brian Health, and several K-12 schools across Nebraska. 

During the pandemic, Domesti-PUPS, had few requests for visits. After the pandemic, business was slow, but then requests started coming in quickly once facilities started opening. Now, they get requests for visits at least once a week. They also have doubled their therapy dog classes from one class a week to two, due to the interest. 

Merri Hackbarth, president of the Domesti-PUPS Board of Directors, said she always thinks there has been a demand for therapy dogs, but the pandemic raised the need. 

“I think another reason that there’s an increase is because of education and knowledge, and people see now what the dogs can do for all kinds of people in all kinds of situations,” Hackbarth said. “It’s the awareness and the education of what a dog can do.” 

Domesti-PUPS began in 2000. Hackbarth said Domesti-PUPS differs from other organizations due to their experience, standards and by providing insurance. 

“Not all individuals or organizations that have therapy dogs have the standards we do,” Hackbarth said. “They’re pretty high.”

The cost for a therapy dog can be anywhere between $3,900-5,900. The cost includes a fully trained therapy dog and insurance for the individual who gets the dog. 

A majority of the dogs for the Domesti-PUPS program come through breeding. They started this breeding program five or six years ago after struggling to find enough dogs through rescue or shelters. 

Hackbarth’s dog Bernie has been involved with the program through breeding and having puppies that have become part of the program. 

Domesti-PUPS still uses other sources to find dogs, such as the Nebraska Humane Society if they are contacted.

They also get contacted regularly via email from individuals who want to surrender their puppies. 

Anne Kastl, secretary on the Domesti-PUPs board of directors and volunteer, said the dogs in their program have to be in perfect health which is why they are selective. 

“We always do thorough exams on all of our dogs to make sure that someone is getting a very healthy dog because it’s expensive to get a service dog,” Kastl said. 

Hackbarth said any dog can be a therapy dog; it depends more on the temperament and health of the dog over breed. 

Domesti-PUPs Therapy Dog Training | Lincoln, Nebraska 

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On May 20, Domesti-PUPS held a therapy dog class in their building. This class focused on how a therapy dog needs to obey commands outside of the home and handlers practiced training their dog to stay and wait and come when called. / Photos by Alyssa Onnen

Some therapy dogs start training once they are born. Training starts with holding a puppy and getting them used to being handled and around people.  

Kastl said they also introduce a puppy to different textures, smells and sounds. Formal training for a puppy begins around eight weeks. 

Not all dogs are born into the Domesti-PUPS program. Kastl said that if they adopt them at eight weeks, the dog will start training at eight weeks.

Domesti-PUPS also offers classes for therapy dogs in training. They start with basic obedience, such as crate training, socializing and walking on a loose leash. 

This can take from six months to a year. 

During training, the dogs are constantly evaluated. Hackbarth said if a dog is fearful of people, noise or situations, trainers will not force the dog to pass testing for certification through Domesti-PUPS programming. 

“We want a dog to want to do whatever that job is whether it’s therapy or service, but they have to want to do it,” Hackbarth said. “We’re not gonna make them do it.”

Hackbarth said with a therapy dog, basic obedience is key. The dog has to be trusted around people. This can include children in schools and elderly in nursing homes, where it can be harmful for a dog to jump on them. 

“We just intensify our basic base obedience, and we prove it to make sure it’s solid,” Hackbarth said. 

To get certified, service dogs and therapy dogs go through different training. Service dogs are trained for clients with balance disorders, mobility assistance, seizure response and diabetic alert. 

Service dogs need to know what to do without being told where therapy dogs are commanded by their owner. 

Service dogs take around two years to become certified. A therapy dog doesn’t have an exact set amount of training time. 

A handler and a therapy dog test as a team, and service dogs are trained in mainstream prisons. 

Domesti-PUPS does weekend orders, where anyone in public can take a training service dog on the weekend out of prison. They take the dog to places like grocery stores, malls, restaurants etc. to get them adjusted to different places. 

Therapy dogs take classes at Domesti-PUPS and must pass testing. 

“If you brought your dog in and you tested, and you passed, you are now a therapy team,” Hackbarth said. 

Domesti-PUPS trainers can’t take another handler’s dog into a school because they aren’t part of that dog’s therapy team.

Once fully trained, therapy dogs have restricted rights to public spaces since they are not under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They have certification so that they can go into schools and other places, but they have to be invited. 

Hackbarth said there are scientific benefits of being around dogs such as lowering anxiety levels and blood pressure. 

“It releases endorphins when they’re petting, hugging, stroking the dog that releases endorphins,” Hackbarth said. 

Hackbarth and Kastl also have many stories on how Domesti-PUPS are benefiting people. 

Hackbarth recalls a specific one. 

Domesti-PUPS have several dogs go to Brian Health in the mental health department. 

On one visit, a dog approached a staff member and sat under her desk. Hackbarth later found out the staff member had a recent death in the family. 

Hackbarth said the dog knew the person was struggling and needed comfort and could provide for that person without them telling it what to do. 

“A lot of times, the dogs get so good at this and they know who needs them,” Hackbarth said. “They will make the rounds based on what they sense is the person who needs them the most.”

Domesti-PUPS receives many letters thanking them and letting them know how they helped them. 

“We get letters and notes all the time,” Hackbarth said. “So it’s really providing comfort in making them feel better.”

Cash | UNL Police Department | Lincoln, Nebraska 

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Cash is a new personality at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln’s Police Department, give the department breaks from the job. // courtesy @cash_the_therapy_dog (Instagram)

Whether it’s a good or a bad day, Cash is ready to make people smile.

Cash is a two-year-old golden doodle who works as a therapy dog for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Police Department. Sara Haake, dispatch director at UNLPD, is Cash’s handler and worked with Domesti-PUPS to adopt him. 

Cash was born on Valentine’s Day and was originally named Hershey. 

He is not a department-funded dog, so Haake did an online campaign to raise money to adopt him. The top donor would get to help pick the forever name. 

The Nebraska Federal Credit Union was the top donor and submitted the name Cash, but ultimately Cash got to choose his name.  

“We put them around the room and we let him run across and pick one that was the plate,” Haake said. “He came back with his new forever name.”

Haake said UNLPD is always looking for ways to increase resilience in their staff and offer mental health support. She has seen therapy dogs receiving more recognition and started to research to see if a therapy dog would be a good match for the UNLPD staff. 

She said law enforcement can be a tough mental game regardless of department size. It’s hard to plan out a day and it takes a mental toll on employees each day. 

“We were looking for something tangible that we could have and see and be able to experience that would help bolster that mental resilience and to give an outlet to some of that everyday stress,” Haake said.

After presenting a proposal to the command staff, Haake worked with Domesti-PUPS to adopt Cash. 

“You’re on a waiting list for about a year, maybe two years, depending on the demand and what type of breed you’re looking for,” Haake said. For a specific breed, it can be much longer.” 

She was able to get off the waiting list last spring. Cash was in training to be a full service dog but was unable to pass some of the testing. 

The director at Domesti-PUPS reached out to Haake, after deciding Cash would be a therapy dog and a possible good fit for what Hakke was looking for. 

“I got to meet Cash and kind of see his temperament and we thought he’d be a good fit for our department,” Haake said. 

Cash now works at the UNLPD office and is available for the entire staff. He cannot roam around the department, so he stays on a leash or with Haake. 

Haake said they use him as a dual-purpose therapy dog for community outreach and for internal support.

Cash sometimes attends department meetings and serves as a break for the staff. He also does community outreach events on UNL’s city and east campuses, such as de-stress events. 

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Cash frequently visits UNL’s campus to give students a chance to interact with dogs and give them a reminder of their own pets at home. / Courtesy Craig Chandler (UNL) 

“I think people look forward to being able to interact with him just in the day-to-day, and it doesn’t always have to be a bad day,” Haake said. “It’s just nice to have to have a little bit of a break.”

UNL PD has created an Instagram for Cash under the username @cash_the_therapy_dog to share his adventures.

Alyssa Onnen is a senior at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln studying journalism and advertising & public relations. She has minors in criminology & criminal justice, psychology, and communication studies. She plans to graduate in May of 2023.