That desire would prompt McCarthey to start groups that take dogs to visit the elderly in nursing homes and “help” children read at the library, as well as an agency called the Sunshine Canine Company that would not only train people’s pets but prepare dogs to take part in those groups.
Back in Texas, her then 13-year-old daughter, Megan, was heavily involved in 4-H programs and did dog training as part of that. McCarthey got involved as a parent volunteer and decided that she wanted to do more.
“Through that, I decided I wanted to be a better teacher for the kids,” McCarthey said.
In 2006, she decided to take an online course on dog obedience training and instruction so she would be better able to teach others how to train dogs.
Not long after, she moved to Cleveland, where she lives with her now 19-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old son, Jacob. Before the move, she was working for a company that runs a website that offers online defensive driving courses. She was able to keep the same job when she moved but was looking for ways to get involved in her new community after the family settled into their new routines and the kids started school.
By 2008, McCarthey had begun to wonder how she could use her dog training skills in Cleveland. It was around that time that McCarthey met Amy Hicks, a local school counselor who had started a nonprofit called Helping Paws Healing Hearts that she started to take her own dogs to visit children. Hicks told her there was also a need for therapy dogs to visit senior adults as well, so McCarthey called local nursing homes to ask what she needed to do to bring dogs to visit residents. She found out that the standard thing to do was to have the dog certified under the “Canine Good Citizen” evaluation offered by the American Kennel Club and decided to become a certified evaluator for that.
That led McCarthey to start the Animal Assisted Activities group, or AAA group, in Cleveland, and she began to spread the word about the possibility of a group making regular visits to nursing homes with dogs. The hope was that others would catch on and that a group would start going on a regular basis.
“That was our first little foray with Sunshine Canine,” she said.
Once dog owners began to hear about the group, about five or six people responded. The group began to meet and train with each other once a month to make sure both the dogs and their owners were prepared to visit nursing home residents.
“Now everyone pretty much does it on their own time when they can,” McCarthey said.
However, some of the group members began to find that their dogs were not comfortable in a nursing home setting. Some of the dogs had become skittish around wheelchairs and other medical equipment.
“Some of us were struggling with the nursing homes, and some of the dogs were better with kids,” she said.
That sparked the idea of a group that would work with children instead. McCarthey had read about a program of an organization called the Intermountain Therapy Animal group that takes dogs to children to help with reading. Children who have trouble reading to people can read to the dogs that they may see as less threatening or judgmental when they stumble over the words they are trying to say. There was not a chapter of that group in the Cleveland area, so some of the AAA group members joined together to partner with the Cleveland Bradley County Public Library for “K-9 Story Time” every third Thursday night from 6 to 7 p.m.
Preparing volunteers to work with children was a different process from getting ready to visit the elderly because they were placed in a teaching role with the children. The dogs’ owners have to know whether to step in and help when a child stumbles over a word or let them figure it out on their own.
“It was more training people on what's OK,” McCarthey said. “We make sure the dogs are good with kids and the people know what to do.”
McCarthey knew she wanted to continue the work she had started with the AAA group and K-9 Story Time, but she began to see the real need for a space in Cleveland that could be dedicated to nothing but dog training.
“My kids are older, and I have a little extra time now,” she said. “So I thought I'd get started.”
The Sunshine Canine Company, McCarthey's dog training center, is located at 405 South Ocoee St., in a small shopping center near Napa Auto Parts and the Old Woolen Mill. The space is filled with dog agility equipment, supplies and other training resources.
“It just opened in January,” McCarthey said. “It's always been my dream to have a dog center.”
She said she is especially grateful for a space to train dogs because many trainers rely on their clients and public places for training venues.
“Most have classes in people's homes and meet at parks,” McCarthey said, adding that she doesn't have to depend on good weather when she has an indoor spot for classes.
McCarthey said she is in the dog training business for the long haul and looks forward to retirement so she can devote more time to training dogs. In fact, she said she dipped into her retirement savings to cover some of Sunshine Canine Company’s opening costs.
“I see this as my future retirement hopefully,” she said. “On top of that, there's a real need in Cleveland.”
She said she hates knowing how many pets make it to Cleveland’s animal shelters. McCarthey believes part of the reason so many dogs are in shelters is because the original owners did not know how to handle the dogs when they began to act badly.
“They're there because the owners didn't know what to do when the dog had issues,” she said. “That's my way to help with the problem — just to teach.”
McCarthey also pointed out she does not know of any places in Cleveland that are just devoted to dog training. Existing trainers mostly work out of clients' homes or stores like Petco, she said.
The Sunshine Canine Company offers Canine Good Citizen training free of charge and is also a place for people to take their pets for basic pet training to learn how to cut down on behaviors like excessive barking and chewing.
In the future, McCarthey plans to offer a new training curriculum by a group that also has a program for dogs in animal shelters. She said she would love to see shelter dogs being trained to make them more attractive to potential owners.
“It gives that dog better skills and makes them more adoptable,” McCarthey said.
People often underestimate how much dogs can put people at ease in stressful situations, she said. She believes that even dogs in shelters deserve the chance to learn new behaviors and make an impact on someone's life.
“Dogs have so much to offer,” McCarthey said. “They are shortchanged every day.”
She doesn’t have a grandiose reason for having started the AAA and K-9 Story Time groups. She said she loves training dogs and believes people should look for ways to use what they are good at to benefit others.
“I like to give back to the community,” McCarthey said. “That's it.”