Animal Samaritans

Warm and Fuzzy

1. Charlie and Harley Cheer the Children

Charlie and Harley Cheer the Children

Twice per month Harley, a black lab mix, and Charlie, a King Charles Cavalier, travel to Shelter from the Storm, a Desert Cities safe haven for women and children affected by domestic violence.  Ann Leiboh (Harley’s mom) and Suzy Walker (Charlie’s Mom), are part of Animal Samaritans’ Animal Assisted Therapy or AAT Program. They provide human fellowship to each person they visit, but their dogs are the program’s star attractions. 

AAT dogs are specially trained to interact with children and adults. At Shelter from the Storm, AnSams’ AAT teams visit school classrooms where children may pet, groom and walk the dogs on a lead. Both Charlie and Harley perform a variety of tricks for their young audiences who, according to Shelter from the Storm Executive Director, Angelina Coe, “are always totally delighted” to see them.

“We are very grateful for the many hours Suzy and Ann have donated with Charlie and Harley throughout their several years of visiting us,” said Coe.

At Shelter from the Storm, older children will sometimes read to the dogs--not for the dogs, but to improve their reading skills.  Like all AAT dogs, Charlie and Harley are excellent listeners; they never interrupt, snicker, or judge, even when a child is struggling with his or her material. Many children (who may not have strong reading skills) will happily read several pages to AnSams' therapy dogs that they might not read in a normal classroom setting because of anxiety. 

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2. Is Your Cat the Cat's Meow?

Is Your Cat the Cat's Meow?

Animal Assisted Therapy has become a familiar term and concept in recent times, with most people envisioning a child reaching for a golden retriever by his hospital bed. Dogs are a unifying, universal healing tool for people of all ages who may be enduring physical or mental health challenges. Trained dogs and handlers are now visiting and assisting people worldwide, not just in hospitals, but also in nursing homes, mental health institutions, detention centers, schools, and courthouses. 

Petting an animal, or even just watching an animal, has been shown to reduce stress and lower our blood pressure. Sometimes a certified therapy animal serves as a listening buddy for a child who is learning to read aloud, or as  motivation for a physical therapy patient to walk that extra step. Many times just the presence of an animal can calm us and lift our mood.

As more facilities request Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) services, more types of animals are making appearances. Some organizations now offer rabbits and alpacas!

In addition to AAT dogs, Animal Samaritans is seeking cats for its AAT program. 

It takes a truly special feline to partake in AAT. One difference to consider between dogs and cats, is that while dogs tend to focus on the other dogs and humans in their vicinity, cats tend to focus more on feeling safe in a familiar territory.

Some cats are simply not interested in strangers, and may even hide under the bed during the neighborhood card game, for example. In contrast, some cats may want to socialize with humans gathered for a festive party in their house, but this does not assure they will want to  travel to new places outside their comfort zone. Then, once in a long while, you come across that cat who is ready to jump in the car and go meet some new people friends!

Cats that are potential AAT candidates need to not only possess gregarious personalities and an ability to adapt quickly to new environments, but also possess some the willingness to learn basic training commands that will ensure their safety and manageability.

To prepare your cat for AAT work, I recommend the following:  crate training; socializing through exposure with friends, family and neighbors; and transportation training that involves being crated and driven in the car without stress or discomfort. In addition, you should harness and leash train your future AAT cat.  Always attach kitty’s leash to a harness —it is not safe to attach a leash to your cat’s collar. Also, always use a basic leash, and never a retractable lead.

Cats need to be comfortable when picked up in a hurry or stroked in a potentially awkward manner. An AAT cat should possess a relatively mellow temperament and not spook easily by sudden noises or unusual smells.

A tolerance for grooming is also important for therapy cats, as they may need to be bathed and have their nails clipped. Some may even need to wear claw caps (temporary rubber or plastic tips to cover the sharp points on each claw).

Animal Samaritans has numerous criteria for its AAT animals. Whether a dog or cat, the animal must pass temperament testing and a basic good manners evaluation to participate in the program. (All dogs must obtain their Canine Good Citizen certification before participating in Animal Samaritans’ AAT program).

Kind-hearted humans should remember that it takes a very unique animal to not only tolerate, but also enjoy and thrive in a place where AAT visits occur. Even social happy-go-lucky pets may not be comfortable around the sights and smells of a medical building, nursing home, or special needs classroom.

Be honest with yourself about your cat and his or her individual preferences. Perhaps your feline has the right spark, but needs some training, in which case you can confer with a positive reinforcement behavior professional for help.

If your Fluffy has love and friendship to share with others, and a personality that calmly accepts new surroundings, situations, and people, consider involving him or her in Animal Samaritans’ Animal Assisted Therapy program. Of course, AnSams is always looking for more AAT dogs to meet the increasing demands of this popular program as well.   

Sara McNutt is the owner and head trainer at The Pet Mentor, offering lessons in dog and cat training and behavior. She is a graduate of the famous Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College. The Pet Mentor can be reached at or 760-851-5975.


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3. Making Short Term Memories & Long Term Friends

Making Short Term Memories & Long Term Friends

There’s an access code to the front door. No one gets lost, or just wanders off. Nor does there appear to be any reason to. The members all appear content, chit-chatting, watching old movies, and playing games together.

The living room flows into a spacious kitchen where staff—all with more than 10 years of longevity here—prepare snacks and gourmet lunches for a client base that often forgets who’s serving them and why.

In the adjacent game room, Arnita Strange, an Activity Counselor at Eisenhower Medical Center’s Five Star Club for 24 years, leads some dozen Alzheimer’s patients in a game of dominos.

“They may think we’re just playing games with them,” notes Denise Latini, a Registered Nurse and the Five Star Club’s General Manager, “but we’re exercising their brains, improving motor skills and strengthening coordination.”

Each day 20 to 30 members are brought to the club for a socially therapeutic experience, overseen by a professional and compassionate staff. They come from various backgrounds, yet are united by a shared, irreversible condition.  Odds are, none of them will see a cure in their lifetimes. Still, there is light here. There is camaraderie. There is laughter. And yes, there are dogs—every Monday through Friday, in fact.

Barbara Koch and her 12-year-old standard poodle, Lily, have been visiting the Five Star Club for several years. They belong to Animal Samaritans’ popular Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) program.

“The three most important things to our Alzheimer’s patients,” explains Latini, “are children, music, and animals…. Most of our members have had a pet.”

Pamela Hays and her AAT dog Maggie, a pit bull/lab mix, joined AAT in January. They visit the Five Star Club every Thursday afternoon.

“I think [the interaction] is as beautiful for me as it is for the clients,” says Hays. “Seeing them pet the dogs, relax, and share their childhood memories—I get a feeling of helping.”

Latini explains that most of her clients have a strong long-term memory, and that the dogs consistently evoke memories of their pets and general positive experiences from the past.

Eisenhower’s Five Star Club in Palm Desert is not merely a refuge for people with Alzheimer’s, it also benefits caregivers. According to Latini, 70% of those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s burn out.  Stress takes a toll, and according to Latini it’s not unusual for a caregiver to pass before a patient.

There are roughly 13,000 people in the Coachella Valley living with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the past six years, the number of patients with cancer and heart disease has dropped, as science has made important advances in treatment and prevention. And yet, the number of people with Alzheimer’s has surged 68%. 

It is not a pretty disease. Embarrassment, denial, and shame compound it’s mental and physical toll.

Whitley is a salt and pepper, two-year old shih tzu who comes to the Five Star Club every Wednesday with her human, AAT volunteer Tiffany Ritchey.

The arm-sized AAT dog was a godsend to Ritchey’s disabled mother. “So, I decided to share her gifts with others,” Ritchey says with a smile.

“Some clients don’t remember meeting me from one week to the week, but they seem to remember Whitney,” explains Ritchey.  Especially when she sits on their laps, so they can hug and kiss her.

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4. Where Do AAT Dogs Come From?

Where Do AAT Dogs Come From?

Mark Miller, a flight attendant for American Airlines, has been a loyal and compassionate member of Animal Samaritans’ AAT program for more than 5 years. He started the program with his West Highland terrier, Maxwell, and never imaged that a second dog, equally suited for animal therapy work, would wander into his life.

A few years ago, Mark and his partner Dr. Lenny Seese, received a puzzling phone call: A neighbor had found one of their dogs wandering in the desert. The problem was, Mark and Lenny’s animals were safe at home.  Curious, Mark decided to investigate.

Auggie, a three and a half year old terrier mix, was covered with sticks and stickers after spending two days and nights on the loose.  The dog’s fur was dirty and tangled. He had no collar and no tags. “We see and hear a lot of coyotes out there,” said Mark. “It’s a miracle he survived.” 

Mark took the dog to a local veterinarian to have him looked at. Upon discovering Auggie was microchipped, Mark was able to track down Auggie’s owner in Palm Springs.

According to Auggie’s owner, his dog had slipped out of his collar during a recent visit to the groomer’s and the dog bolted from the store. Auggie darted into traffic and appeared to get clipped by a passing car before scampering out of sight. The entire grooming staff was out looking for him, but the dog was nowhere to be found.

While Auggie’s reunion with his master was sweet, it was ultimately brief. Auggie’s dying owner was enduring the later stages of AIDS. Mark and Lenny spent a long time with Auggie’s owner that day, and made Auggie’s owner a promise: If he needed to “go on vacation,” or had to be away from Auggie for any reason, they would take care of him—for as long as he needed. 

The man smiled a knowing smile; he knew what Mark was saying, and yes, he was grateful to know that when he passed away Mark and Lenny would adopt little Auggie, his most precious and dearest friend in the world.

In adopting Auggie, Mark and Lenny have not only provided the dog with a safe and loving home, but also given Auggie a new purpose and joy in life: Animal Assisted Therapy.  Auggie now accompanies Mark and Maxwell on their AAT visits to cheer up and bring smiles to the sick and the lonely. Mark says he is the lucky one to have wandered into Auggie’s life.

There’s just no telling how a therapy dog will change a person’s life, including his owner’s. 

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