Four-legged comforters
by Glenn Moore
Jan 25, 2013 | 4160 views | 0 0 comments | 25 25 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Therapy dogs seek volunteers
Astoria Gardens resident June Johns enjoys a visit from Bella, a Chihuahua therapy dog owned by Carrie Kieper, during a visit to the care facility on Friday, Jan.11.  Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
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Astoria Gardens resident June Johns beamed as she held Bella, a Chihuahua, on her lap on Jan. 11.

Nearby, resident Germaine Imhof called out, “How much does he weigh?” as she watched Dan Schack’s Bernese mountain dog, Rio, stretched out in the middle of the room.

And Bailey, a Pomeranian owned by Heidi Mezenski, spun in circles on the floor as she performed one of her many tricks, to the delight of residents.

The dogs were part of a Paws 4 Friends therapy session at the assisted-living facility at 1960 W. Lowell Ave.

The volunteer dog owners and their canine companions travel to care facilities and hospitals in Tracy and Manteca to comfort residents.

Paws 4 Friends has about 32 members, including nine from Tracy, according to Mezenski, coordinator for the Tracy dog owners.

Mezenski, 51, said the group’s goal is to double the number of dogs and handlers in the program to meet the demand at Astoria Gardens, New Hope Care Center, Emeritus at Heritage Place and three Manteca homes.

“There is a real big need for it,” she said. “Once we go in and make a visitation, they really like us coming in, and they would prefer us to come once a week, but there just is not enough of us.”

The group goes to each center every other week, Mezenski said, but hopes to visit weekly in 2013.

The organization also takes dogs to libraries and schools, where children can read aloud to them to strengthen their vocabulary and reading skills.

Volunteers work in two-person teams with their dogs.

Each therapy session lasts about an hour, and each dog sees an average of 15 residents.

Mezenski said the dogs spend time with each person individually. The residents can pet the dogs or just sit beside them if they are unable to move around.



No special requirements

Laura Francis, 52, the founder and board chairwoman of Paws 4 Friends, has been making dog therapy trips for seven years — six with her dog Fisher and five with Abby, both golden retrievers.

Francis said Paws 4 Friends is designed for the average pet owner. No special training is required for dogs or handlers, and there is no fee to join.

“That’s the beauty of having dogs — they don’t judge, there is no language barrier,” Francis said. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak, they speak to the dog in their language and it’s happy to see them — it breaks down barriers.”

Paws 4 Friends dogs are registered with Therapy Dogs Inc., a nationwide organization that provides insurance for the handlers on their visits.

Francis said there is no membership fee to join Paws 4 Friends.

There are certain requirements, however. Each dog must be at least 1 year old, the owner must have had the dog for a minimum of three months, and the dog must pass a fecal and veterinary screening.

Once a dog passes the initial health, obedience and temperament tests, it goes on three observed visits to a care facility to evaluate its behavior around patients.

Francis said all breeds are eligible, except wolf hybrids and coyote breeds.

“It’s not the size of the dog or their breed, it’s their temperament,” Mezenski said.

Francis said it can take as little as three weeks for a dog with good temperament and proper paperwork to join the group.



Making a difference

During her visits, Francis said she sees a change in the residents.

“It encourages communication, socializing — it takes their attention from their day-to-day activities, lowers their stress levels, and helps the residents cope,” she said.

Some visits by the therapy dogs are specifically for people with from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“One of the reasons it is important for us to maintain consistency and regular visits is just keeping their awareness and alertness,” Francis said.

Cindy Salentine, who works with Astoria Gardens residents on a daily basis as the center’s program coordinator, testifies to the difference Paws 4 Friends makes.

“There is something that changes the moment they see the dogs — their eyes light up and they perk up,” Salentine, 47, said. “It cheers them up, and they get a little more engaged.”

She also said the animals give the residents a sense of purpose.

“It makes them useful and safe,” she said “They feel like they can care for something in that hour window (the dogs) are here.”

Francis sees the same benefits.

“Sometimes it’s not even about the dog, it’s about having someone to socialize with —just having someone there to visit for a few minutes with them,” Francis said.

• Contact Glenn Moore at 830-4252 or gmoore@tracypress.com.
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