Four-Legged friends offer unconditional love in its purest sense

While man’s best friend has in recent times gained “comfort dog” status and, in some instances, even been used as a fashion accessory peeking out of a designer handbag, he has always had the innate ability to heal—even back in the day when he was labeled nothing more than a mutt.

From those living on the street, to the common household, care facility, school and even courtroom, it’s no secret that dogs—and cats, among other pets—can be soothing to your soul, warming to your heart, and helpful in combating anxiety and depression. Dogs and other pets can also lead to a decrease in “blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and feelings of loneliness,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“He can suck the stress right out of you,” my husband says about our Golden Retriever, Ace. It’s true. I can literally feel the tension leaving my body when I hug our lovable tail-wagger, whose biggest mission in life is to love.

Creating Wellness Social Canine Therapy Program
“They make you feel better, while you are getting better,” said Roz Morris, founder of Creating Wellness Social Canine Therapy Program, a nonprofit organization which trains volunteers and their dogs to work as teams providing love and comfort to patients in hospital settings. Creating Wellness currently serves 34 care facilities in Sonoma County, including Brookdale Windsor and Healdsburg Senior Living Community, and Marin General Hospital in Marin County.

“It’s all about love. I’m there to bring comfort and love from the dog. People feel better after they love on a dog or if a dog loves on them—the main goal is to make someone feel better,” said Morris.

It was the power of a Cocker Spaniel that touched Morris so much that she remembers an experience from 30 years ago like it was yesterday. Morris recalled the day she took her little dog, Sabrina, to visit a woman in the subacute unit at Healdsburg District Hospital. At the time Morris managed the gift shop at the hospital as a volunteer, and it was there that she started Creating Wellness, back before pet therapy was popular.

Morris said she peeked inside an open room and saw a woman sitting in a wheelchair, her head looking down at the floor, so she knocked on her door. The woman did not respond, so she knocked a second time and still got no response. She walked to the nursing station and asked the nurses if they thought the woman in the room might want to visit with her dog.

“One of the nurses told me not to bother, but when people tell me not to bother, that’s when I bother. They said she had been there for five days and had not been communicating with her doctor or other staff,” Morris said.

Morris entered the room and sat down in a chair in front of the woman and put the dog under the table where she could be seen by the patient. “So I go ahead and put Sabrina on my lap and take the patient’s hand. We are petting her together, and I am talking to the patient and she is still not communicating with me. I am telling her about Sabrina… and that this dog is going to bring down your blood pressure and relieve stress in your body because that is what dogs do for us. She was still looking at the floor… I must have been in that room for an hour working with her. By the time I left that room she was sitting up, talking to me.

“The two nurses who said not to bother, they were standing outside and I said to them, ‘Don’t ever tell me not to bother, because she is going to communicate to nursing staff now.’ That is something I will never, ever forget, ever, and that happened 30 years ago,” Morris said.

Bergin University of Canine Studies
Unforgettable stories seem to go hand in hand with therapy dogs and their handlers. Rene Lummer was recently a puppy parent at Bergin University of Canine Studies, where people are trained to train dogs to become service dogs, with a dog named Lee.

Dogs not quite suitable for service dog work are often released to people to become therapy dogs. And such was the case with Lee, who found his true calling as the latter, after visiting a Santa Rosa school serving students with learning differences.

“While training him, for an additional experience I took him to New Horizon School and Learning Center. He liked it and I loved it,” Lummer said, noting Bergin representatives agreed that Lee would make a great therapy dog and offered him to Lummer for adoption.

“So now I will be taking him (back) to New Horizon School. The kids just loved him and got excited. There was a high school girl that was so anxious that she recently wouldn’t attend school. But the days he was going to visit, she wanted to go to school. She would look forward and wait for Lee to arrive. Her mother said it started to change her daughter’s attitude toward school,” Lummer said, adding, “Kids that were anxious, it gave them something to look forward to. They even took a picture of him and hung it on the inside of the front door, so they could see him when we weren’t there.

“There are so many ways you can use a pet for therapy. This is just one way,” Lummer said.

Paws As Loving Support Assistance Dogs
For instance, Miranda is an 18-month-old black Labrador Retriever, who is the first courthouse dog to be placed in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, according to her owner, Nancy Pierson, president and CEO of Paws As Loving Support Assistance Dogs (PALS). Founded in 2009, PALS is a nonprofit that provides training for service dogs and comfort or therapy-type dogs to be used in various settings, from the courtroom to a school classroom.

Miranda lives with and comes to work regularly with a staff member. Her job is to help victims and witnesses feel calmer and a little less stressed, Pierson said.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for a child, or even some adults for that matter, to talk about what has happened to them… Depending on the needs of the witness or victim, Miranda will be allowed in the courtroom or on the witness stand. Just as with PALS comfort dogs, interacting with Miranda helps to lower blood pressure and stabilize heart rate, thereby facilitating a more even emotional state to cope with the events of a trial,” she said.

Serge Zimberoff and Inaya, his black Labrador, won the PALS 2015 Volunteer of the Year Award. Inaya is a ‘reading, social and therapy dog’ certified to work in schools, visit hospitals and convalescent homes and be present with people of all ages who are handicapped and helped by a dog’s presence. Every Monday afternoon they visit the Charles M. Schulz Airport, where PALS has had teams helping passengers get their ‘dog fix,’ reduce anxiety about flying and more since September 2015. “We are now getting repeat passengers thanking us so much for having a dog there because they miss their own dog, who is home in Fairbanks or wherever,” said Zimberoff.

The two also volunteer at Roseland Free Public Library every Saturday in the ‘Read to a Dog’ program. “Children sign up and read any book of their choosing, out loud, to Inaya for a timed five minutes. My very best feelings come as I see the same child gradually move from painfully sounding out each word to when they just read—and then, when they begin to throw in some emphasis, it really brings a big smile to my face. Inaya sometimes appears to pay attention and sometimes sleeps, but nonetheless the young people read to her as if she is listening intently,” said Zimberoff.

Sonoma Humane Society Cats Program
These testimonials are touching—but let’s not forget about felines. After all, there is a reason for the expression, “the cat’s meow,” which refers to something that is outstanding.

Just ask Sonoma Humane Society Cats Program Manager Elizabeth McQueen or any of the 75 Cat Care Partners that are dedicated to the shelter cats. While volunteers provide company and comfort to the cats, they also benefit by doing so.

“I believe the volunteers are here for many reasons. First and foremost, they love cats,” McQueen said. “I feel that it gives some of my volunteers a purpose. Some of the volunteers are retired and volunteering here gives them a job to do. Coming to the shelter helps with boredom and depression. Some of my volunteers have anxiety, but when they are socializing with our cats, they can become calm and focused.

“I believe that working with animals provides a sense of purpose and the reward comes when cats within our shelter walls are happy and have a feeling of being safe,” she said, adding, “There are many studies that show working with animals can lower blood pressure, help with anxiety, calm children with autism, and create an overall feeling of happiness. I know that when I am having a bad day it helps me greatly by just offering a toy to a playful kitten, or offering a hide-a-bed to a slightly scared cat. When a hard-to-adopt cat finally gets adopted, it literally makes my whole week amazing.”

Nutmeg’s Gift
For myself, I remember the profound affect my then-kitten Nutmeg had on me when I brought her home from a shelter. She was not much bigger than a guinea pig. I had been depressed. I remember carrying her around the house nuzzled under my neck; she needed the cuddling and, in the process, she saved me. She is older now, but I still feel a sense of inner peace when I am typing away on the computer with her sleeping on my lap—like right now.

And somewhere along the line I had another realization about animals: I was playing with my cat one day and it suddenly occurred to me that while doing so, I was completely in the moment. My mind was on the game, nothing else. So at the very least this tells me that if you want to escape everyday life pressures, try playing with your pet. SD