A Special Dog Helps a Community Heal

Diana and Ray Haneski with River, their therapy dog 

“We knew she was special the moment we got her,” Diana Haneski says about River, her family’s therapy dog. 

A therapy dog is a service animal specifically focused on providing comfort and affection to others. These dogs are trained  to serve in hospitals, schools, airports, and even at crisis sites.

Therapy dogs are required to pass a series of tests before joining a service organization. Skills include accepting strangers, sitting politely, being summoned when called, and reacting appropriately to other dogs. It takes just the right canine personality to thrive as a therapy dog—a wagging tail, warm eyes, and a loving heart.  

Therapy dogs can be incredibly beneficial to humans. Several studies around the world have shown that interacting with dogs lowers cortisol, a type of stress hormone. These interactions also release surges of endorphins and oxytocin, hormones that cause happiness.

The Haneski family is well-known in the town of Parkland, Florida. Ray is the technology specialist at Westglades Middle School. Westglades is next to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD), where Diana is the media center specialist.

The most famous Haneski, however, is River, MSD’s official therapy dog. The Haneskis adopted River in August 2018. Earlier that year, a mass shooting at MSD killed 17 people, including students, and injured 17 others.   

The Haneski family has played a key role in easing the sadness, trauma, and anxiety felt within the community. Students and teachers at MSD are allowed to visit River at any time throughout the day. River brings “comfort, joy, and love” to each interaction, the Haneskis say.

River was a gift from the community and an independent breeder. After hosting several therapy dogs in the library after the shooting, MSD asked Diana to adopt River. She gladly accepted.

I recently spoke with Ray and Diana about their experience with River and how therapy dogs help bring healing. Below are highlights from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.


Lincoln enjoys the sun with River. 

What training does River have that allows her to serve the community?

Diana Haneski: It’s continuous training. We like to say she went to kindergarten before we got her, because at two months old she went to four weeks of training, and then they flew her here.

Ray Haneski: She had basic skills. She knew how to stay in a crate overnight, and was moderately potty trained.

DH: We were going to weekly training with special people who wanted to give back and do something nice for us. 

RH: Two wonderful trainers and Pet Supermarket allowed us the space to do the trainings with a group of other Stoneman Douglas families who had dogs.

DH: There were other families in our school community that got dogs and needed training, so that's why Pet Supermarket did that.  We did that every week so she got certification - the first one is basic training, then advanced training, then Good Canine Citizen, and then Therapy Dog certification. 

What is a typical day like for River?

RH: She’s up about a quarter to six, has her breakfast, and takes a walk. Then she hops in the car with us and heads off to school. She sees a lot of people. She has her kennel at school, where she’ll take some quiet time if she needs it. 

DH: She does take a rest. School starts very early, so there’s a lot of activity. At around eight o’clock, or so, she’s looking for her downtime and takes a nap.

RH: There are teachers who request to see her. Some teachers, as they’re coming into work, have to see her every day. If she happens to come with me [to Westglades] for some reason, they’re wondering where she is. She’s a part of the school community.

What is the process for students to visit River?

DH: As long as the library is open, they can come in. Sometimes, we get a call from a classroom, so I'll bring River in, even just for a little bit. She senses when you need something. She’ll come over to you. Many teachers have said, “She went to the right kid when she came into class.” She feels the energy in a room. She’s a friend, and you can talk to her. There’s no judgment.

RH: She’s always there, but you want to check and make sure that it’s OK to pet her, as with any dog. Once she gets to know you, you won’t need to ask. She’ll run to you. 

Can you describe a typical interaction between River and a student?

RH: At Westglades, they see her and ask if they can pet her. They want to sit on the floor with her. Some of them lay next to her, petting her, talking to her, and rubbing her ears.

DH: Even just a little touch to get the feel of her fluff—for some people, that’s all they need. There are so many different ways that they’re going to enjoy her. She’s usually at the high school with the students and teachers. But I also go to Park Trails [Elementary School] and do a reading program with them, so she ends up seeing students who are her size. It’s a slightly different interaction because she’s used to the bigger kids. All of a sudden, these little kids are right at her.

RH: They all want to touch her at once.

DH: It depends on the person and what they want, but, typically, they say something nice and pet her or just admire her. 

RH: It gets them to talk and express things.


Lincoln visits with the Haneski family. Ray says of River: “She’s been in a school play. She’s been dressed up in costumes, and she’s been on top of the Christmas float at school. She makes people laugh and brings them a smile.”

How many community members has River helped?

DH: Thousands. There are more than 3,000 students at MSD, and she’s finishing her fifth year. Someone can enjoy seeing her even if they don’t come up to us or talk to us. It happens all the time. We’ll be out at some event and hear the little kids say, “Oh Mommy, puppy!” or people saying, “Look how beautiful!”  

RH: She’s out in the community whenever we volunteer with Canine-Assisted Therapy.

DH: She does events in the evenings and on weekends with that organization, and she’s at MSD every day.  

How can interacting with a therapy dog be more beneficial than interacting with people?

RH: Therapy dogs have a calming effect. You can just look at River and are able to smile, so that’s a change in your attitude right there. Petting her and having her near lowers the stress level in your body. Even if she’s just laying there, the kids will walk by and smile at her. She’s definitely a smile bringer and stress reducer.

DH: I’ll open the door to the library during the change of classes, when kids are walking by. A student who stopped was petting her and said, “This is much better than going to talk to a counselor.” For him, that’s what he needed. He got that comfort from River.

My family had an experience with therapy dogs after the tragic shooting at MSD. They wrapped their arms around the dogs and instantly burst into tears. My mother and grandmother said it felt OK to cry. Has River also had this effect on people?  

DH: For me, I’m there still. I’m not sure I could be working at MSD still if I didn’t get to bring River every day. I think a lot of people will share that opinion. It’s nice to know she’s there. She helps bring me strength. I knew she would help, even when I first met her. I knew she was going to have an impact on us because you could just see by the way she is. We knew we needed that. When we came back to school, there were all these beautiful dogs ready to help us.

RH: She was our road to recovery. We knew she was gifted to be a therapy dog. We knew we had to get her trained, to not let everyone down. It gave us a purpose. Because of that experience, in my retirement, I’ll be working with dogs. We recently screened with another organization called HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response. We know the benefit of having a dog there.

What motivates you to give so much back to our community?

RH: Throughout our lives, a lot has been given to us. We feel the need to share our good fortune.

DH: I feel the same way. Having gone through the shooting, I have a strong sense of “I’m still here. I have to do something good.”  I get inspired by the families who lost their children, and those adults who lost their spouses. I see them moving forward and doing something good in the community. It gives me strength.  

RH: Many people who have been through tragedies, who have started foundations, who have done something good, they need to find that purpose. They needed to do something to try and make something better. 

DH: We have that in our personalities. Before we had children, we volunteered in the Special Olympics. It was one of the most rewarding things we’ve done. It’s nice to help. My mother always said, “If you make someone happy, you’ll be happy too.” She was right.




Top photo courtesy of Ray and Diane Haneski; other photos courtesy of the author