On Sept. 4, therapy dogs from the Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation visited the Mills community on the lawn outside of F. W. Olin Library. Greeting students on that Wednesday were golden retrievers Fulton, Luka and Nigella.
“Therapy dogs provide a trusting venue,” Rich Henika, Fulton’s handler, said. “It’s really nice that people are so comfortable around the dogs, that they are willing to tell their stories.”
Henika shared that most students he and Fulton have visited over the past four years discuss missing their own pets back at home. Students also talk about the different stressors of being in college, such as project deadlines and exams.
Crouched next to Fulton, Mills graduate student Catalina Otarola shared her story. She has two dogs at home, in Chile, that she misses being able to take care of and spend time with.
“This reminds me of how it is to have my dogs and be able to pet them,” Otarola said. “So, I wanted to pet other dogs, remind myself about what it’s like to have my dogs here. It’s great to have their support. I don’t know what it is, but dogs really calm me down. Like, I’m not alone in everything that I’m feeling.”
Not to be confused with service dogs, therapy animals and their handlers are meant to provide affection and comfort to people in places such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools. In contrast, service dogs are meant to provide support and aid with tasks for one person with a disability. The Federal Housing Act and The Americans with Disabilities Act protect the rights of people with service dogs, but not therapy dogs.
UCLA Health found that therapy dogs confer a range of mental and health benefits on people. For example, petting an animal encourages the release of hormones—oxytocin, prolactin and serotonin—that stimulate relaxation. Other benefits include reduced loneliness, lower blood pressure and better heart health.
ARF therapy dogs are required to complete a six-week Canine Good Citizen training course, offered by various kennels; obedience and training clubs. The American Kennel Club established the program in 1989 to promote responsible ownership and the training of well-behaved dogs.
“He lies next to the kids while they read their book,” Cindy Schmid, Luka’s handler, said. “They can’t pronounce words. I’ll say, ‘Well, let’s ask Luka,’ and it’s so cute. They’ll say, ‘No, Luka doesn’t know the word either.’”
Former professional baseball player Anthony La Russa and his wife, Elaine, founded ARF in 1991. It is a nonprofit organization, headquartered in Walnut Creek, that rescues and finds homes for dogs and cats from public animal shelters that might otherwise euthanize them. ARF runs other animal-focused programs, including a spay and neuter clinic, humane education programs and help for low-income individuals to afford their pets.
The ARF Pet Hug Pack, in particular, is a therapy animal program of more than 200 volunteer teams, consisting of pets and their handlers. According to the ARF website, these animals visit thousands of students, children, seniors and veterans, among others, each year.
“We’re hoping that a little bit of visiting time with a dog will help,” Henika said. “I tell them they get ten points on the next test. I’ve never had anybody call me on that one.”