Hearts of Gold

Rescue Organization’s Therapy Dogs Lend a Loving Paw in Central Florida


If you have ever seen a golden retriever, Labrador retriever, or similar dog serving as a therapy dog working hard to lift spirits and ease anxiety at an event in Central Florida, there’s a good chance that dog was working with Hearts of Gold. The therapy dog program is part of the Golden Retriever Rescue of Mid-Florida, based in Goldenrod, where dog lovers and advocates for therapy dogs unite to rescue and adopt out dogs as well as train and certify therapy dogs.

“As soon as you walk in with a dog, the child’s demeanor immediately changes,” says Terence Hickey, Orlando area coordinator for the therapy dog program.

The therapy dogs serve in a variety of locations, including schools, memory care centers, assisted-living facilities, workplaces, libraries, events, Departments of Health, resorts, and — of course — hospitals. In 2023 alone, dogs and trainers made 591 visits to places such as Florida A&M University, Windermere Prep, Forest Lake Education Center, Amazon warehouses, various libraries, and AdventHealth.

AdventHealth requires a separate screening in addition to the therapy training provided by GRRMF and Hearts of Gold. The six dogs approved by AdventHealth visit both AdventHealth for Children and AdventHealth Orlando.

“Dogs will go to specific floors where a visit has been requested from a nurse or parent (in the case of the children’s hospital),” Hickey says. “They make the child feel better while they are in the hospital.”

Recently, Hearts of Gold teams attended Give Kids the World’s Gingerbread Run in Kissimmee.

“At Windermere Prep, our dogs go in twice a month to work with second-graders,” Hickey says. “Small groups of children meet with the dog and read portions of a book aloud to the dog. At the end of each reaching period, they get to pet the dog.”

“Children will always react positively with a dog,” Hickey says. “One of the children said, ‘I don’t really like dogs, but I might like this one.’ ”

Hickey explains that Hearts of Gold works differently than other dog therapy groups. The group conducts a series of tests and screenings to make sure the dogs are good therapy dogs. Once a dog and trainer have completed the training, the dogs are monitored for the first three events to be sure they are good in the field.

When the group’s therapy dogs are out in public, they wear aqua vests bearing the organization’s name and the dog’s name. That vest is a visual cue that the dogs are therapy dogs with insurance and that the hosting organization has requested the dogs be present.

Ginger Vincent, Hearts of Gold Program Director, founded the therapy arm of GRRMF six years ago. The program is an American Kennel Club-licensed organization for therapy dogs. While many of the therapy dogs are retrievers and/or rescues from GRRMF, Hickey is quick to note that dogs of any breed outside of the rescue are welcome to join and train with Hearts of Gold, as well.

“If you have a therapy dog, you can be tested and screened into the program,” Hickey says.

Currently there are 89 dogs in the Hearts of Gold program. The owners, who work purely on a volunteer basis, racked up 1,800 volunteer hours last year while serving the group’s five zones in Melbourne, Palm Coast, The Villages, Orlando, and the Tampa Bay/St. Pete area.

Hickey points out that both divisions — GRRMF’s rescue operations and Hearts of Gold — serve important roles in the Central Florida community.

Since its founding in 1991, GRRMF has rescued roughly 4,100 dogs from throughout Florida and as far away as Louisiana and Ohio. In 2023 alone, approximately 109 dogs were adopted.

Volunteers travel to pick up the dogs for rescue. If the dog has any medical issues, GRRMF pays for veterinary care. The rescue dogs are placed with foster families to allow the dog to rest and recover from the experience and to make certain the dogs are ready for adoption. Dogs deemed ready for adoption know various commands and are leash trained.

The organization has a strict application process in place for the adoptions. A home visit is scheduled to ensure that the information provided on the application is accurate, and the organization follows up with the dogs for a full year to make certain the adoption has been successful.

To learn more about Hearts of Gold, go to grrmf.org/grrmf-hearts-of-gold-therapy-team/. For more information about adopting from GRRMF, go to grrmf.org.

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