Staff members at Animal Samaritans recently shadowed a team of volunteers and their Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) dogs at the Indio Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. This is a clean, slow-paced, unassuming facility with a friendly staff. Some wings house part-timers, residents on the mend from illness or injury, but with a place on the outside to eventually call home. Other residents live there full-time. If I were a betting man, I’d guess nothing all that exciting happens here. There’s drop-bys from the nursing staff, weigh-ins, medication distribution, breakfast, lunch, dinner, an occasional board or bingo game, TV and more TV; for the most part life ticks on, routinely, one might even say uneventfully.
However, weekly visits from Animal Samaritans’ Animal Assisted Therapy volunteers bring entertainment and happiness to the center. B.J. Cobb, an AAT Division Leader, has been bringing Danny Boy, a white standard poodle, to the facility for years. “He will stay for as long as I’ll let him,” she says.
The staff here knows Danny Boy well, as do the live-in residents. Jenni is one such resident who inches her way down the tiled floor in a wheelchair. Her frail body looks permanently bent to the side; she’s aged and squinting, but sees B.J. approach with Danny Boy and calls to them. “Paws up,” says B.J., and Danny Boy gives Jenni a high-five.
Tony Vencke is a roving physical therapist who assists patients at the facility. He too knows Danny Boy, and knows the power of healing that animals bring by making patients smile. “I cannot imagine our hospital without them,” he says. A dog owner himself, he knows the happiness animals bring these residents. “My wife is not as happy to see me as my dog,” he quips. “These dogs bring joy to the people here.”
B.J. and Danny Boy are joined by SallyJo Peterson and her dog Rose, a Belgian Trevuren. Roger Andres and his Cavalier spaniel named Charlie are absent this day, but complete the trifecta of big dog (Danny Boy), medium dog (Rose) and little dog (Charlie). Rose is expert at tricks. “Lay flat, stand, turn,” SallyJo instructs, as Rose delights her captive audience.
“They make my day,” says Pat, a full-time resident. She has wide breathing tubes snaking from her hospital gown and strokes the big white poodle with feeble, albeit affectionate hands. “I can be feeling so down, and when they come through the door it’s like heaven opened up. They are so precious.”
As I move from room to room, observing the simple but positive effect these dogs have on the residents, it becomes clear that the canines are only half of an effective AAT team. B.J. and SallyJo do more than drop an animal at the foot of someone’s wheelchair or bed; they ask patients and residents about their day, their ailments, their children, the drawings on their walls—they give them their time; they care.
Joyce is a white-haired woman, tall, witty, talkative, legally-blind. She’s been at the Rehabilitation Center for six years, and has known B.J. and Danny Boy since they first began coming. Joyce smiles when Danny Boy trots into her room, but is soon looking for B.J. “She’s our Santa Claus,” she tells me. From reading materials to cheeseburgers, B.J. seems to know just what Joyce wants, and has taken it upon herself to see that her friend enjoys the occasional small pleasures in life.
“Our visits give clients a chance to talk to someone other than the medical staff,” whispers SallyJo. Unlike the center’s staff, SallyJo and B.J. are not paid to be there—AnSams’ AAT teams volunteer their time and pets. That said, you don’t have to own a dog to volunteer in the program. B.J. Cobb, for example, is not Danny Boy’s owner; he belongs to Virginia Keeley. B.J. is simply Danny Boy’s AAT partner. Virginia has other dogs, and according to B.J. they all get jealous when she comes to take Danny Boy on assignment.
Dogs participating in Animal Samaritans’ AAT program must first acquire their Canine Good Citizen certificates, and pass an AnSams’ behavior testing class. In addition to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, AnSams’ AAT animals visit children with special needs and local hospitals patients. Volunteers with AnSams’ Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) program take animals to visit incarcerated youth at Juvenile Hall in Indio.
Ideal AAT and AAA animals are smart, accepting to strangers, nonaggressive toward other dogs, and have an innate desire to work. After evaluating each animal’s personality, size and age, an Animal Samaritans program leader will recommend the best locations for a dog to visit. The program is free; however, volunteers must first sign on as members of Animal Samaritans prior to serving the community.
To learn more about Animal Samaritans’ AAT and AAA programs, contact Animal Samaritans SPCA at 760-396-7313 or view their website at www.animalsamaritans.org.