Each Friday, patients at JFK Memorial Hospital receive a visit from Zane, a six-year-old standard poodle, trained as a therapy dog.

Owner Sherri Halstead wanders from room to room, gently knocking on each door to ask the patients if they would like to spend a few minutes with Zane. For most, he offers the irresistible appeal of a cuddly, plush toy.

“Just on today’s visit, there were two young women in the hallway, pretty devastated and in tears; they kind of were watching him, and I said, ‘Do you want to pet him?’ Immediately you could see the tension, and tears stopped. They caught their breath and then they were smiling,” said Halstead.

For patients recovering from illness, this furry visitor offers a delightful distraction from their routine. And Zane doesn’t seem to mind all of the love and affection he receives from both patients and health care staff.

At home, Zane is just like any other house pet – playful and sometimes “goofy,” – but when the service vest comes out, Halstead says he takes on the calm demeanor of a seasoned health care professional. “He’s a very different dog with his vest on. Poodles are actually hunting dogs. They have a very high work ethic. He knows his job is to go to people and stay with them as long as they want him there.”

In addition to his weekly visits at JFK, Zane visits an elementary school and works with special needs children twice a month. “They have attention issues, so he’ll sit and let them read to him. They relax a lot more and will attempt to read through their whole little story,” said Halstead. Zane also provides therapy at agencies providing developmental services, such as Desert Arc and Canyon Springs.

Dogs in the Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) program are provided as a public service by Thousand Palms-based Animal Samaritans. AAT volunteers must pay an annual membership fee, starting at $25. Their dogs need their Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certificates from the American Kennel Club (AKC) before entering the program. Free AAT behavior testing sessions are held throughout the year.

Having the right temperament is a prerequisite to becoming a therapy dog, says Halstead. “Beyond that, you have to desensitize them to things like loud noises, hair pulling, fingers in the mouth … you have to put a lot into training and then I believe that you, as a handler, need to know what you’re doing, too. You need to know when to pull back (on the dog’s lead).”

Friendly but overly enthusiastic dogs are not well-suited as animal therapists either. “If you have a little dog that does not like to sit on people’s laps or if you have a dog that insists on jumping, it’s probably not a job for them,” she said.

Membership in the AAT program has benefits for pet owners as well. “I’ve always been involved in volunteerism. I’ve been lucky in my life and I think it’s a good way to give back – and I get to go out with my best friend. How lucky am I?”

For more information on the Animal Assisted Therapy program at Animal Samaritans visit animalsamaritans.org.

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