Using four paws and a tail to help the community
By NICK WALDEN / Rohnert Park Correspondent
Honoring the exceptional connection between humans and their dogs, a group of 10 came together with a project aimed at cultivating that special emotional bond. In September 2010, Rohnert Park-based 4Paws was incorporated.
Its purpose was two-fold: creating a place where dog owners could bring their pets to learn about nutrition, care, therapy, hospice and end of life care while also taking dogs to visit people in care facilities, schools and public libraries.
“A lot of people don’t know what they can do to make things better for their pets when they are in their later years,” said Joanne Yates, president of the organization’s board of directors. “Organically the idea came about to create a place like that for dogs. It will be a place for social therapy, to treat dogs and also a place you can bring pets when they are dying.”
While the organization explores ways to make that care facility a reality, members are busy connecting pets and their owners with others who can benefit from the interaction, using a circle of life mentality.
“We are trying to build up our recognition and let people understand what our mission is before purchasing a site within the county that is a resource for all community members,” Yates said.
“The goal is to be there and serve the community with animals and also help people understand what animal needs truly are.”
Through two primary programs — Readers of the Pack and Social Therapy — 70 teams of trained volunteers introduce their dogs to people of all ages, providing emotional support for children and people in healthcare facilities. When it’s time for the roles to be reversed, 4Paws hopes to provide dogs with the same type of care and support needed for their later lives.
“(Dogs) give you that little window to forget your problems and remember that you are normal and you are okay,” Yates said.
As part of the group’s Social Therapy program, she visited a young horse and dog trainer who was hospitalized at Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa after a car accident left him unable to walk.
“He felt his life was over,” Yates said. “He was irritable and unhappy with life. When I brought Polly, a golden retriever, to the door he said, ‘No no no. I bet it’s not even trained properly.’”
She encouraged the young man to see for himself, and he started working with the retriever. Eventually he got outside so he could throw the ball with Polly.
“One of the nurses told me that they just have to see themselves as normal in some way,” Yates said.
Michelle Lua and her greyhound, Whitney, work with children in classrooms and at the Rohnert Park Library, encouraging children to read to Whitney.
“We had one little girl who didn’t say a single word in class for almost a year,” Lua said. “I would ask her each week if she wanted to read to Whitney, but she would just shake her head. Then one day she sat down and started reading. The entire class turned to watch because they had never heard her speak before. Of course, now she never stops talking.”
Social Therapy teams visit schools and healthcare facilities in Napa, Sonoma, Marin and San Francisco counties, including the Summerfield Healthcare facility in Santa Rosa, where Activity Director Erika Altamurina couldn’t be happier with what the dogs mean to the patients and the staff.
“It is beautiful and important for long-term and short-term care,” she said. “When they visit with people, they provide a lot of sensory stimulation and keep their mental faculties stimulated. It’s also like a family for them. Some of the patients wait by the doors because they know certain dogs are coming that day.”
Their visits also enrich staff and the patients’ families and friends.
“You see it right when the dog enters a facility,” said Yates, “big smiles all around. They provide relief and comfort. Dogs lower blood pressure, and that calming affect takes over a room of what can be a pretty stressful place.”
Volunteers pay out of pocket for the $50 training course and uniforms, but get to choose when and where they will volunteer. In many cases, people have specific facilities they prefer. Along with the training, 4Paws organizes events such as educational speakers or potlucks to help foster the group’s unity.
“Training is different,” said Lua. “You have to see how the dogs handle being touched or in different situations, and then look at how the pets and their owners react. Not every dog is used to what is needed, like sitting quietly in a library for an hour.”
One of the group’s most famous dogs is Jonny Justice, a bull terrier who was rescued from Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring. He recently won a “most beautiful dog in the country” contest and will have a GUND plush toy made in his likeness. Jonny and his owners volunteer through 4Paws at a Ronald McDonald-type family house in San Francisco.
4Paws volunteers and their dogs also work with Alzheimer’s, physical therapy and hospice patients as well as special education students. Dogs also visit Sonoma State University twice a year, giving students the chance to pet them for stress release and to create a feeling of normalcy in their lives.
Said Yates, the programs are so successful because dogs can relate on a level that humans can’t always reach, and because pet owners find a way to volunteer in a very personable and unique manner.
“Dogs open a different world,” she said.
So far, 2013 has been a good one for fundraising, too. Sharon and Robert Freed gave the nonprofit a generous donation that allows the board and volunteers to plan for a special event.
And a serendipitous meeting between Mike Campbell, owner of Paradise Pet Resort, and 4Paws board members at the Pet Food Express Adoptathon and Pet Fair quickly led to common ground. Campbell became a supporter of the organization, and from that meeting emerged the idea for the first annual Sonoma County Adoptathon and Health Fair, to be held later this year.
4Paws is located at 5800 Commerce Blvd, Rohnert Park, 861-0235. For more information about programs or volunteer opportunities, visit 4pawscenter.org. Another training class will be held in February, with room for 10 teams.