Asheville’s canines clock in

PAGE TURNER: Eight-year-old Cora Geitner reads a book to certified therapy dog Flora at East Asheville Public Library's Read to a Dog! event. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Asheville is a haven for its furry residents, from dog-friendly breweries to numerous dog parks. Common sights include canines lazing under outdoor cafe tables, strolling along greenways or perusing wares in local shops.

But not all of Asheville’s pups live a life of leisure. There are several who work hard for the money — OK, the dog treats — in our libraries and schools as well as on our streets.

Xpress recently visited a number of our dedicated canines at their places of work.

Library cards

Flora might be the only one working at East Asheville Public Library who can get away with sleeping on the job.

Flora’s mellow temperament — very mellow — is exactly what her owner and handler, Cassie Walton, sought in a therapy dog. Flora is the star of the show for the bimonthly Read to a Dog! story hour, and she’s perfectly content with little hands petting and high voices squealing and giggling.

“Her energy is just fantastic” for working with kids, says children’s services librarian Zoe Bergmire-Sweat. Flora’s 15-minute segments with each child involve a mix of listening to stories read aloud and draping herself over each child who is sunk into a beanbag next to a pile of books. Flora’s paws often end up in their laps, and she stretches out, exposing her tummy for a belly rub.

Walton is a school-based licensed clinical social worker for RHA Health Services. While working at a residential treatment program for kids with mental health challenges, she was impressed by the therapeutic benefits she saw with therapy dogs, specifically golden retrievers. When she adopted Flora two years ago, she began training for certification with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Around the time of Flora’s graduation, East Asheville Public Library was looking for a canine for Read to a Dog!

Flora spends a lot of time around children and is tolerant of loud noises, Walton says. Because some kids are fearful around dogs, Walton sits nearby holding Flora’s leash and gently guides her to sit up, sit down or move. (Bergmire-Sweat is on hand to help sound out difficult words, and she collects a waiver from each parent whose kid participates in the program.)

Asheville dad Ryan McGovern brought Fenden, 7, and Maybelle, 8, to Read with a Dog! on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “They’ve both struggled with reading confidence,” McGovern says, explaining how their early education occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I also like that this is a lower barrier of entry to [experiencing] therapy dogs. … I think they can be really valuable for less acute [situations].”

The reading opportunity also inspired Haw Creek’s Jenna Marshman to bring her daughter, Cora Geitner, 8, to meet Flora. While Marshman reads from a Black Beauty picture book and gives ear scritches to Flora, Cora listens with a smile on her face.

But truthfully, Flora isn’t much of an active listener during story time. “She’s not too focused on the reading part,” Walton admits with a laugh. “She’s honestly more focused on getting the pets.” But judging by the hugs Flora receives when each 15-minute session finishes, that’s just fine with the library’s young patrons.

‘Let’s make the best of it’: Warrior Canine Connection puppies

Not far from the library, there’s a hubbub downstairs at Groce United Methodist Church. Pete is bouncing around, and Morty is getting a belly rub. No, nothing untoward is happening in the church basement: Pete and Morty are puppies who are about to start a training session with the nonprofit Warrior Canine Connection.

TREATS, PLEASE: Resistance to puppy-dog eyes is a crucial component of training future service dogs for Warrior Canine Connection. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

The organization offers the opportunity as a community service option for veterans going through Buncombe County’s Veterans Treatment Court.

Corralling all the puppy energy is the work of WCC Asheville program manager Amy Guidash, and she’s good at it. (After all, not everyone could stay strong in the face of puppy-dog eyes.) She initiated  WCC’s Asheville program in 2018 and began collaborating with VTC the following year. WCC provides “mission-based trauma recovery” for its veterans, who are called Warrior Trainers.

When Warrior Trainer Darrin Echerd enters the room, 10-month-old black Labrador Pete cannot contain himself — he whines and jumps. “Pete really likes Darrin,” Guidash emphasizes. But training a service dog means teaching self-control, and so Guidash won’t let Pete go to Echerd until the puppy calms down. It takes a few minutes, but when Pete is allowed to greet his friend, he leaps up to administer doggy kisses. He’s treated to pets and some Cheerios from Echerd’s pocket. Echerd has been working with Pete for only three weeks, which illustrates the strength of their bond.

Training is a lot more than slobbery kisses and Cheerios; as the puppies age, they advance through increasingly sophisticated tasks to assist veterans. “Fully trained service dogs can open doors, and if you tell them to ‘touch,’ they will go close the door that they opened with their nose,” Echerd explains.

Matt Estridge of South Asheville has been part of WCC for two years. He served in the Army from 2003-08 and did two tours in Iraq. He experiences anxiety in groups, and at the beginning of his involvement with WCC, he struggled to enter the building.

MAN’S BEST FRIEND: Army veteran Matt Estridge has trained puppies with Warrior Canine Connection for two years. “It feels like home to me to be here with these puppies — and the people,” he says. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

“I would just show up and I would sit in my truck. But I knew if I made it here and was able to get inside, I could see the dogs,” Estridge explains. “Now it’s to the point where I just walk straight [in]. It feels like home to me to be here with these puppies — and the people.”

Estridge is waiting for a service dog of his own. In the meantime, he says training WCC puppies by taking them out in public is a great help. “I’ve got to socialize them and, therefore, I’m socializing myself,” he says.

Estridge formed a particularly close relationship with a WCC dog named Bryce. (Bryce recently left Asheville for the WCC headquarters in Maryland, where he will be paired with a veteran.) Socializing Bryce empowered Estridge to visit public places; many people, of course, want to meet a puppy, and that’s an easy way for veterans experiencing anxiety to form a connection with strangers. Together, Bryce and Estridge hiked, fished and even took in a Lukas Nelson concert at The Orange Peel with WCC dog trainer Michele Tate and her (human) partner.

“I sat down and wrote down all the places that I took him, and it made me tear up,” Estridge says. “I haven’t been active in so long. There’s a lot of really easy places that people go that I haven’t been. I found myself wanting to go and explore places because I had him — ‘I got Bryce today, let’s make the best of it.’”

‘Love and attention’: Kora the APD therapy dog

Asheville Police Department’s most visible ambassador is Kora, who can often be seen downtown “paw-trolling” the streets in a blue light-bedecked cart.

She’s not the typical police dog. The goldendoodle’s only job is to be approachable and petable.

She’s popular with tourists and merchants alike, according to Sgt. Debbie LeCroy. “It softens the interaction between law enforcement and the community,” says LeCroy, who is Kora’s owner. “It makes us very approachable because they haven’t seen anything like it.”

In addition to her public relations role, the 3-year-old therapy dog helps detect anxiety and stress in humans. Kora’s pawprints are all over the department; she participates in everything from death notifications and suspect interviews. Lawyers sometimes ask Kora to accompany a child or an adult during testimony at the Buncombe County Courthouse. LeCroy has brought her to Helpmate, the anti-domestic violence nonprofit, and to sit with children who are describing to police officers their experiences of physical or sexual abuse.

LeCroy adopted Kora as a puppy and soon enrolled her in seven months of training at Highland Canine Training in Harmony. The program trains autism service dogs, mobility assistance dogs, police dogs and military dogs.

In 2021, when Kora was 8 months old, LeCroy, then at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, asked to bring Kora aboard. The department approved a therapy dog program, but when BCSO discontinued the program in 2023, LeCroy submitted her resignation.

Around that time, APD was considering its own therapy dog program. LeCroy had worked for APD before joining BCSO. So LeCroy returned to APD in spring 2023, and Kora quickly became part of the team. “We both have been very welcomed,” she says.

Deputy Chief Jackie Stepp
PUBLIC DISPLAY OF AFFECTION: Asheville Police Department’s certified therapy dog Kora, a three-year-old goldendoodle, embraces APD Deputy Chief Jackie Stepp. Photo courtesy of Debbie LeCroy

Kora’s primary role is to support the health and wellness of officers. She does “deep compression therapy” with officers, meaning she lays atop their chests and helps regulate breathing. Kora is allowed to wander through parts of the Asheville Police Department and visit employees’ offices, imploring anyone to play tug-of-war or toss a ball. (As interviews with the media take place in the boardroom, the high-pitched squeaks of Kora playing with her toys can often be heard beyond the closed door.)

Kora also attends Critical Incident Stress Management Team debriefs after officers have been involved in traumatic events, such as missing persons searches or the death of a child. Though her home base is APD, LeCroy and Kora will travel when asked to support other Western North Carolina agencies. “She’s requested at a lot of debriefings, and I go to as many as I can,” LeCroy says.

Canine therapy is a component of “letting the officers talk about it and process the event,” LeCroy explains. Typically officers sit in a circle. “I let Kora just mix and wander in the crowd,” she says. “She might mosey over to someone that she senses needs her love and attention at that moment.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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