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Creatures of comfort: Program provides pet therapy throughout region

Valley Humane Society takes dogs for visits to schools, senior living homes, emergency situations and more

"Is it OK if Chloe comes up to you?"

Every other Saturday at Eden Villa, an assisted living facility for seniors in Pleasanton, Liz Stewart approaches residents with the same friendly refrain and a familiar companion -- her dog Chloe, an 8-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback.

She and Chloe greet seniors sitting in the common room, then stop by individual rooms where residents have requested a one-on-one visit. Often, residents spend a couple minutes petting Chloe and telling Stewart about their old dogs; sometimes, however, they'll shy away from the opportunity.

"They always tell me right away, 'I am not OK with a pet visit,' and we're OK with that, aren't we Chloe?" said Stewart, a Dublin resident on a recent visit to Eden Villa.

Stewart and her dog are just one of 175 active teams in Valley Humane Society's Canine Comfort Pet Therapy program.

Started over 15 years ago by the Pleasanton nonprofit, the program takes Tri-Valley residents and their dogs to schools, businesses, assisted living facilities and other spots around the East Bay. Handlers take their canines to Pixar Animation Studios to offer stress relief for employees, pair them with children practicing their reading at local libraries or bring them to the bedsides of hospital patients, among other opportunities.

"Canine Comfort Pet Therapy connects our dedication to dogs and cats in the community to the incredible impact those animals have on people's lives," said Valley Humane Society executive director Melanie Sadek. "Though we don't have cats in our program currently, we believe animals are a necessary healing tool, and so providing that care to those people in the community who need it the most is something we think adds value not just to the people, but to animals."

Canine Comfort teams consist of a handler and their own dog, and there's a good mix of small to large dogs in the program, from Chihuahuas to Golden Retrievers. Valley Humane doesn't train dogs to participate in the program; rather, it evaluates dogs and their handlers to ensure they meet a set of standards, according to Sadek.

Canine Comfort dogs must be at least a year old and have some form of obedience training with the ability to perform basic commands like "sit" and "down." They must pass Valley Humane's temperament test, which requires them to be calm and friendly, enjoy being petted and able to adapt to different surroundings.

Handlers have to provide their own dog, be at least 18 years old and successfully pass a background check. They submit separate applications for themselves and their dog and must attend an orientation if approved.

Stewart got involved in pet therapy before moving to the Tri-Valley in 2010. As an Orange County resident working at a physical therapy office, she became interested in the work when a physical therapist started doing pet therapy with her Golden Retriever.

Stewart thought her former dog Angel, who died last year, had the right temperament to be a pet therapy dog. She enrolled her in a training workshop and started volunteering in 2009.

When Stewart moved to the Tri-Valley in 2010, she researched local pet therapy volunteer opportunities and came across Valley Humane Society and its Canine Comfort program.

She waited until Chloe was 6 before starting her as a pet therapy dog because "she was puppy-like still -- you could tell she wasn't quite ready," Stewart said.

"I took Chloe through a 'Canine Good Citizen' class, and then I had a friend of mine with a little girl bring her over to do a mock 'Paws to Read' session so I could make sure Chloe was right for that, if she would be OK with sitting quietly for a half-hour to hour session," she said.

Chloe passed the test and has been a pet therapy dog for nearly three years. Besides Eden Villa, Stewart regularly takes her dog to Pixar, the Pleasanton and Livermore libraries, and Futures Explored in Livermore, which serves adults with disabilities.

"Each facility brings different enjoyment and experiences," Stewart said. "When we visit senior facilities, I love how it gets them talking about their own dogs or asking questions about Chloe. With Futures Explored, some really light up when Chloe comes in. I'll hear employees saying they've been kind of sad today, but as soon as Chloe came in it brightened up their day."

Seeing the impact Chloe makes is what Stewart particularly enjoys about the volunteer work.

"I love doing it because of the joy and comfort she brings no matter what kind of day someone's having," Stewart said.

Fellow Canine Comfort volunteer Paul Wankle has a similar affinity for his work with Buddy, his 13-year-old Golden Retriever-Labrador Retriever mix. Wankle, a longtime Pleasanton resident and business owner who also sits on Valley Humane's Board of Directors, got Buddy as a rescue pet when the dog was 3. He then found out about the Canine Comfort program and thought Buddy was a good candidate because of his calm disposition.

Wankle got his dog certified, and over the course of eight-plus years they've frequented Pixar, libraries for "Paws to Read" and veterans support facilities. Once a week for the last five years, he and Buddy have also visited Christine Fitzsimmons' special day class at Alisal Elementary School, which consists of young students who have special needs such as autism and intellectual disabilities.

Fitzsimmons and Wankle met after another pet therapy dog that had been visiting her classroom was unable to continue doing so. She says Buddy "was a perfect match."

"Our students have speech and language impairment," Fitzsimmons said. "We do vocabulary and sentence structure and spoken language Monday through Thursday, and Friday is their chance to share with Buddy that we've been talking about penguins or the rain."

"Sometimes students that wouldn't have chatted with me share something with Buddy," she added. "That kind of language breakthrough is super fun to see."

Over the last five years, a bond has developed between Fitzsimmons' class and Wankle and Buddy. In 2013, he and Buddy received the "You Make a Difference" award from SELPA (special education local plan area) for outstanding service to special needs students in the Tri-Valley. They celebrated with a dinner out with Fitzsimmons' class.

"It's incredibly rewarding," Wankle said after a visit to Alisal this month. "These kids have become family."

He added he's been glad to see the Canine Comfort program broaden its impact over the last several years.

"It used to be mostly Paws to Read; now it's also nursing homes, veterans, special needs programs," Wankle said. "We've seen tremendous growth to the Canine Comfort program over the last 10 years and it's been so well received -- it's great to see."

Twilight gala

Supporters of Valley Humane Society and their four-legged friends will come together March 3 for Tails at Twilight, the organization's third annual gala.

Scheduled for 6-11 p.m. at the Palm Event Center, located at 1184 Vineyard Ave. in Pleasanton, proceeds from the event benefit the organization's programs like Canine Comfort Pet Therapy and animal rescue efforts.

This year's gala will include a champagne reception, passed hors d'oeuvres, a full no-host bar and a medieval feast, seated and served family-style.

There will also be dancing and live and silent auctions. Live auction packages include dinner for six made by Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department firefighters and the chance to name an Eight Bridges Brewing Company beer after your pet (with custom label design).

For Pleasanton residents only, the "Ambassadog" package names the winning bidder's canine the city of Pleasanton's ambassadog for 2017, complete with declaration, a Pleasanton Weekly feature, community television interview and a spot in the Hometown Holiday Parade.

Tickets are $125 per person, and guests should "dress to impress." This event sold out in its first two years, so those interested in attending are encouraged to buy their tickets now at valleyhumane.org.

Contact Melanie Sadek with questions, 426-8656 ext. 11 or msadek@valleyhumane.org.

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