Article by Richard Waxman, “Paws & Hearts” Animal Assisted Therapy
Photography courtesy “Paws & Hearts” Animal Assisted Therapy
Let’s go back to March 2020 … at Paws & Hearts, we had 35 Canine Ambassadors and their handlers out in the community, making weekly visits to local hospitals, long-term care facilities, cancer centers, and special education classes. Then the pandemic reared its ugly head, and our visits, like most of the world, came to an abrupt stop. And there we were, making plans to celebrate our 20th year in business with an amazing Spring Volunteer Luncheon (I still have the gifts with the date on them).
Like so many other nonprofits, our work was halted overnight. Temperament tests stopped, volunteers dropping by the office came to an end, and things were pretty grim for a while. Surprisingly, though, donations kept on trickling in via both regular mail and PayPal, which was particularly unusual. It was as though the community wanted to make sure we hung in there.
After 18 months, just before Omicron whacked us all again, we had started back on visits, but with all new safety and protocol measures in place. The volunteers had to show proof of vaccination before entering a long-term care facility. The volunteers had to be masked at all times, and there was no touching between the volunteer and the patient. Volunteers were now asked to stay at a safe distance—that being the end of their dog’s leash while visiting. The dog was still allowed on the bed, but no longer allowed to kiss. And hands were to be sanitized after every room visit.
If the patient/client wasn’t wearing a mask or the mask was below the nose, the volunteer had the right to refuse to visit. This rule was strictly followed.
The best type of visits became the small group visits in a community room, where the residents were all masked up, and the dog could visit from person to person, with the handler at the end of the leash, keeping that safe distance. As of this date, our teams are only back in long-term care facilities—the hospitals have not allowed visits with the therapy dogs to resume as of yet.
While the added safety precautions didn’t pose that much of a challenge, Omicron hit, and so three of the six facilities we were back to visiting had active cases and had to close their doors to all visitors. So, once again, we were stymied. It was so disheartening to finally be up and running, conducting temperament tests again and getting the volunteers back on visits, and then having to pull back again.
As of this writing, cases of Omicron have greatly subsided and more of our volunteer teams are back out on visits. Regardless of mask mandates, for or against, the facilities require that all our volunteers be fully vaccinated, complete with the booster, and masked while inside the building.
As we continue to get back out there, we are always looking for candidates to be part of the program. All dogs must be a minimum of one year old, have all their shots, be spayed or neutered, and be incredibly friendly and outgoing. We do not require previous obedience training or the Canine Good Citizenship certificate, just exceptionally friendly dogs who work well with their owners.
The humans at the end of the leashes must be full-time desert residents (sorry, snowbirds), as our volunteers make a commitment to visit their assigned facility each and every week, and they must be extremely good listeners!
The joy of visiting with patients/residents is amazing. All the volunteer hears from the folks they visit is:
“You made my day!”
“I waited all week to see you!”
“I saved Lucky a piece of bacon from breakfast!”
“Can you just leave Scruffy with me and come back in an hour?”
And you will never be prouder of your dog than when you witness him or her interacting with these folks, and you see the sheer delight they have experienced by just being able to pet your dog. This is a simple but powerful way to give back to the senior community.
Our lovely new office is located in the Berger Foundation Building, at 42-600 Cook Street (corner of Merle), Suite 138, Palm Desert, CA 92211, (760) 836-1406.
Newsletters, information, and the volunteer application can be found on our website at pawsandhearts.org. And, each and every Monday, our Facebook page is updated with a new Volunteer Report.
The Latest from Paws & Hearts
We are now in our 23rd year of serving the valley with our Canine Ambassadors. As you can tell by reading the article, visits had been all but halted due to the pandemic but are slowly coming back. So, good news on that front!
Our Monthly Pet Loss Bereavement Group has continued to be of service to the community. We have run this group for 6+ years now in memory of my buddy, Scruffy. We have had a few hundred in attendance over the years and based on the thank-you’s we receive, the group really helps people come to terms with the loss of their beloved companion animal. Meetings are the second Wednesday of the month at 1:00 pm in the Paws & Hearts office. Registration is required and can be found on the opening page of our website at pawsandhearts.org. We’re here if you need us!
And we’re pleased to announce that we have just moved our Paws & Hearts offices to the Berger Foundation Building at the corner of Cook and Merle in Palm Desert. Finally, a ground-floor office with no stairs and covered parking!