Deb Helfrich, owner of Gold Star Dog Training, grew up with a fear of dogs until she attended a lecture about therapy dogs in 1996. (Photo by Cindy Chittenden)

One night in 1996, Deb Helfrich’s friend dragged her to a lecture for Therapy Dogs of Vermont.

Now the owner of Gold Star Dog Training, Helfrich laughs while recalling she was terrified of dogs growing up.

“My dad is allergic to them, and I never had great experiences,” she said.

But during that event more than 20 years ago, Helfrich felt something under the table and, to her surprise, Jordan, a German Shepherd therapy dog, rested her head on Helfrich’s lap. He didn’t leave her side for the rest of the evening.

By the end of the talk, Helfrich’s heart melted, and her perspective on dogs radically changed.

“I walked right up to Steve Reiman, founder and president of TDV, and let him know I wanted to help,” she says. “He offered Jordan to me to work with. Jordan became my first therapy dog-partner and, eventually, Steve gave her to me and she lived her last year with me.”

For the next eight years, Helfrich volunteered as a dog handler and quickly learned how to train with the help of Reiman, his therapy dog Lilly and, of course, her partner Jordan. Helfrich and Jordan traveled together, visiting nursing homes and the University of Vermont Medical Center to see patients.

“Overall this helped me gain perspective on life’s challenges, as well as how to react to them with grace,” the 20-year Vermont resident said. “It’s really tough to be cross about a coworker or a deadline that got shortened after you meet a child who has lost his legs in an accident or who is battling cancer for the third time.”

In 2005, the organization offered Helfrich the volunteer position of director of training and certification. While continuing to work her day job, Helfrich jumped at the opportunity and started to manage the testing and evaluation of new therapy dog teams and designed the policies and guidelines related to therapy dog certification.

Four years later, Helfrich started teaching obedience and social skill classes just for fun. As her clientele grew, Helfrich decided to officially start a business and, in 2012, Gold Star Dog Training was born.

Today, Helfrich works with parks and recreation departments around the state, including one of her first supporters, Essex Town Parks and Recreation. She teaches three courses up to three times per year.

The first six-week course covers the essentials, focusing on understanding your dog, bonding with its loved one and basic obedience training. The second course includes further training on these lessons over five weeks.

The third offering covers dog communication and safety. Helfrich interacts with members of the class, tests their dog-reading skills and provides fun answers to silly questions like: Why does a dog shake off even when it’s not wet? Why is a growl a good thing? And is a tail wag always friendly?

In 2016, Rita Wozniak completed the essentials course and lauded Helfrich’s coursework.

“It helped tremendously with our very active puppy to become a well-received member of human society,” she said. “All commands learned in the class have been retained even a year later. It’s obvious her years of experience have made her classes an affordable, safe, fun, orderly and informative school for our beloved Jupiter. Most importantly, Helfrich is very open and receptive to questions, concerns and challenges that come her way.”

When she isn’t working or volunteering, Helfrich enjoys spending time with her husband, Tom, and their beloved German Shepherd rescues Cora and Mya. And this year, she plans to expand her community outreach by developing more lectures.

To learn more, visit on To sign up for a class or community lecture through the Essex Town Parks and Recreation Department, visit or call 878-1342.