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Healing Unleashed

Animal Therapy Has Positive Effect on Seniors and Pet Owners


There is a regular group of visitors to the Fitzgerald Senior Day Support Center in Thousand Oaks who always seem welcome. And though they don't say much, they tend to get many of the guests talking.

Grace Paloutzian of Oak Park couldn't say enough about her visit with Mac, a gray Irish wolfhound who walked right up to the 87-year-old and planted several slobbery kisses on her cheek.

"It makes my heart . . . happy," said Paloutzian. "They're so innocent and so sweet and they love people without any questions."

Paloutzian was one of about two dozen senior citizens visited by the Buddy Brigade, a group of volunteers who bring their pets to hospitals, nursing homes and other group-care facilities in Ventura County. The volunteers stop by at least once a month to provide pet therapy, which has been known to ease loneliness and increase social interaction, particularly among the elderly.

Buddy Brigade is a chapter of Love on a Leash, a national organization based in Oceanside that certifies pets and owners for such visits. There are 35 volunteers in four chapters, including Buddy Brigade, in Ventura County, making this the group's second most-active region behind St. Louis, which has 51 members.

Several organizations provide forms of pet therapy in Ventura County, but Love on a Leash is one of the few volunteer organizations that includes more than just canines. At least four cats, two parrots and a horse named Skipper also make appearances.

On a recent afternoon, four Buddy Brigade volunteers brought their dogs to the Fitzgerald Senior Day Support Center in Thousand Oaks. The seniors sat in a big circle as their furry friends made their rounds. Some held Chico, a black-and-white Chihuahua mix, on their laps. Others petted Justin and played with Coal, a black Belgian sheep dog.

Sitting quietly in his wheelchair, Al Berger was relatively unresponsive to those around him most of the day. Before long 8 1/2-year-old Justin, a cream-colored standard poodle, nuzzled up against him looking for a new friend.

With the help of an assistant, the 75-year-old leaned forward, rubbed the dog's ears and stroked Justin's soft, curly fur.

"He likes you," Justin's owner, Lisbeth Deisenroth, told the Oak Park resident. "He's got a big, brown, wet nose. He'll stay there all day when you do that."

Studies have shown that pet therapy can lower blood pressure, relieve depression, lessen anxiety and even decrease the need for some medications. Experts say the animals also stimulate social interaction among those around them, liven up sterile environments and help people forget their aches and pains.

Pets also have been known to lift the veil of fog that often envelops victims of Alzheimer's disease. Those who have been unresponsive to everything else may suddenly smile, talk about pets they had as children and reach out to pat a dog on the head.

"It connects with their hearts. It touches them--even people who become isolated and their eyes are dead," said Cheril Miller, a director for UCLA's program in geriatric medicine and gerontology. "What the animals do is remind them, as it does for the rest of us, that there is a world out there [and] there is a world in here--that everyday can be worth living."

Not all animals are cut out for pet therapy. Those involved with Love on a Leash must pass an evaluation, administered by a pet-obedience instructor or trainer, to determine whether they are well-behaved. They have to show they will sit, lie down and heel on command, and they must not mind having their heads, ears and feet being touched.

No biting is allowed. And they can't be afraid of loud noises, because there is always a chance that a food tray or bed pan will fall during a visit. Dogs must be up-to-date on vaccinations. Other animals, including cats and rabbits, must be examined by a veterinarian.

Membership costs $20 a year, which includes liability insurance, a bimonthly newsletter called The Leash, and an identification tag that features the animal's mug shot.

Volunteers say that, while some facilities may not require certification, it's worth the extra step.

"It does give you more credibility to have some connection with either a national group or a shelter or humane society," said Deisenroth. "To know that that animal is going to be able to handle the types of situations that arise can be of great importance [to group centers]."

Liz Palika, a dog trainer and author of numerous pet books, founded Love on a Leash 15 years ago in San Diego County. She and a small group of fellow pet lovers had decided to take their dogs to visit shut-ins at hospitals and nursing homes. A magazine for dog owners subsequently ran a story about them, and their operation took off.

Today, Love on a Leash has chapters in 15 states and about 1,000 members nationwide.

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