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PETS : Volunteers Extend a Paw to the Sick and Elderly

January 28, 1993|MARGE BITETTI | Marge Bitetti is a free-lance writer who occasionally contributes to the Times Orange County Edition.

The volunteers who take their pets to visit the sick and the elderly don't expect to change the world. But they say they have seen small miracles.

Take the young neurological patient who had trouble vocalizing--until the visits, when talking about the dogs improved her speech.

Or the cranky elderly man who lights up with a smile when the dogs visit.

And those ailing patients who have trouble stretching an arm but make the extra effort to reach out and pet a dog.

The dog owners--plus a few cat owners and one who has a parrot and another with a rat--are members of the Orange County Pets Are Wonderful Support program. The volunteers say it's those small miracles that keep them visiting nursing homes, hospitals, senior day-care facilities and foster child care homes.

"When we see people in poor condition who are able to smile at an animal, it makes the volunteering fun," says Elaine Lintner, PAWS coordinator. Lintner's yellow Labrador retriever, Jenna, is in the program. "I love to share my dog with other people," she says.

PAWS, in operation three years, is part of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The program is based on the theory of "pet-assisted therapy," that the physical and mental well-being of people can be enhanced by the company of pets.

Volunteers visit one of six facilities each week, and there are always more requests than the group can fill, so additional participants are welcome. Twice a year the group holds screenings (the next date has not been chosen) to find animals that:

* Get along with other animals as well as with people.

* Are not upset by crowds or noise.

* Are housebroken.

* Have graduated from obedience school near the top of the class or behave as though they have.

* Have up-to-date vaccinations.

Dogs that are accepted are given a bandanna that goes with their owner's PAWS T-shirt, which they wear on volunteer visits.

Humans who want to get involved must be 18, but teens may participate if accompanied by a parent enrolled in the program.

Petless volunteers are also welcome. They can visit and chat with patients or help coordinate the program.

Those interested in the program can call Elaine Lintner at (714) 779-1596 or write to PAWS c/o Orange County SPCA, 8855 Atlanta Ave., No. 164, Huntington Beach, 92646.

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