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February 18, 2009 > Ohlone Humane Society: Therapy dogs give gift of love

Ohlone Humane Society: Therapy dogs give gift of love

By Nancy Lyon

Vianna Bullis, Senior Team Coordinator. Our teams in Ohlone Humane Society's Animal Assisted Therapy are busy! Tuesdays may find us at Centerville Library participating in a program called "Read To Me." School-age children who may be shy about reading to others come to improve their skills by reading aloud to someone non-judgmental - and that someone is sometimes a dog!

High school volunteers under the direction of Children's Librarian Chein-Chun Chang coordinate the popular program. I see our work as twofold. Not only do kids improve their reading, but often we are able to convince an unsure child (and parent) that it is really OK to snuggle with a dog while reading a favorite book.

On other days our program serves the elder population in assisted living and nursing homes. One favorite spot is the Alzheimer's Unit in Union City's Masonic Home. No matter how poor the cognitive skills, people can still remember a beloved companion animal from long ago. Our animals help revive that memory and great conversations follow. One lovely couple thought I was there to give them my dog - and they graciously accepted her. Only with some skillful convincing was I able to get out of there with my dog!

A class of severely handicapped children gets excited about our visits. They now know how to groom a dog, brush teeth, clean ears and clip toenails. One little girl's greatest joy is to follow us around and collect dog hair into a neat pile. When given the chance, she will even gently pluck it right off the dog. A non-ambulatory child practices her best crawling exercises when she is wiggling toward a dog to give it a treat.

The day care unit of OnLok includes many retired nuns from Sisters of the Holy Family Convent. They are the most delightful ladies. Every time they greet us by name and give us loving words and blessings. But do you know how much black hair a lab can leave on a white habit? They never complain about that.

We are the lucky ones, who head home after a visit with joy in our hearts that we were able to share our amazing animal companions with a world that loves them.

Cheryl Olvera, Therapy Team member. Bob Gates, a popular team member who has a wonderful rapport, brings his very special ability to connect with people to visitations. He's a prime example of the special individuals who are part of the program. In fact, he has decided to start talking when he visits his friends. That may seem a little unusual, but you see... Bob Gates is a Golden Retriever.

I remember one day, as we walked in the door at Aegis Retirement and Alzheimer's Community, he recognized some of his friends. He stood at the door and howled hello. I knew he was trying to say, "Hey, I'm here." Recently, they have been baking cookies when we get there, and I know he thinks he can try to have one when he drags me over. I have to talk some people out of trying to give him a piece.

When we go next door, he always stands at the door of the Carlton Plaza Senior Living Community cafe baying at his friend Karen, who runs the place. He howls to her whenever he hasn't seen her for awhile, and she carries on a conversation with him. Besides seeing people in the living room, he also visits one of his friends in her room. He knows we need to take the elevator up. She leaves her door open for visitors, and one day we didn't see her in her chair. Bob, having no shame, walked right into the bathroom to tell her hello. Being a dedicated dog lover, she just laughed.

The request for this valuable community service is overwhelming and we are always seeking new team members. If you have a super social and well-mannered canine friend and are interested in joining the program, leave a message for program Director Kathleen Jackson on the business line at 510-792-4587. Along with your contact information, leave the best time to reach you. Animals must pass a special evaluation process to ensure they are safe, obedient, stable individuals that love to be around people in many different environments.

As you can see, these wonderful dogs contribute so much to the quality of life of youngsters and elders alike...the gifts of love, warmth and total acceptance.

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