When Malibu resident Erin Rice adopted her Labrador/Pyrenees mix, Finn, from an animal shelter five years ago, she had no idea that her “mellow” canine companion would soon lead her to abandoning a 15-year career of investment banking and becoming an advocate for the healing nature of animal therapy.

“I had just read a book called “Paws & Effect’ that talked about the healing power of dogs,” Rice said. “I checked out this organization that trains service dogs and was blown away by the impact dogs could have on suffering people.”

She was so blown away she took a rigorous volunteer training to train Finn. They began volunteering with People-Animal Connection (PAC), a program housed at UCLA Medical Center. Last October, Rice took over full-time directorship of PAC.

“We send out 70 teams to over 40 units in the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood and in Santa Monica,” Rice said. “We do 900 room visits a month with volunteer dogs and their owners. Then there’s all the interaction with staff and families of sick patients. When the dogs come into the rooms, it’s like tension just melts.”

Finn and Rice will be featured on a PBS special titled “Shelter Me: Let’s Go Home,” airing Tuesday at 7 p.m., which discusses the range of good work provided by dogs, from bomb-sniffing to seeing-eye dogs.

The PAC program was launched almost 20 years ago by a UCLA Cardiac Care nurse, Kathie (“Kc”) Cole. Early success with the program led Cole to conduct a research study on animalassisted therapy. Cole catalogued a uniform decrease in anxiety, loneliness and sense of isolation, and an increase in calm and happiness in both patients and staff with therapy dogs.

Rice says that sick patients’ interaction with human treatment providers is sometimes so unpleasant, a dog can elicit a different response, something more soothing, calming and brightening.

“We visited a seven-year-old boy named Jonah who had undergone brain surgery,” Rice said. “He was nonverbal and not very responsive. But we put some treats (Honey Nut Cheerios) in his hand and Finn gently licked them out. His mother teared up and I asked her why. She said, ‘Jonah just signed the word for dog. It’s the first time he has responded like that since the surgery.’”

Rice and Finn visit psychiatric wards, children on the autism spectrum, people with eating and emotional disorders, intensive care pediatric units and even Emergency Rooms. The dogs must be bathed no more than 24 hours previously, and sheets are draped over the bed for the dog to lie upon.

Animal therapy is not just feel-good conjecture. Studies have shown that trained assistance therapy dog visits to severely ill cardiac patients in intensive care units significantly lowered measurable levels of stress, and lowered heart and lung pressure.

“Dogs just have this intuitive capacity to feel suffering in others,” Rice said. “You can see it in how they connect and nurture these patients. The idea that my dog can bring comfort and joy to someone in severe discomfort, whether it’s physical or psychic pain, just makes me feel good.”

PAC provides workshops and evaluations for dog/owner teams who have already undergone Pet Partner training, to further evaluate which patients they might work best with. The PAC teams rum the gamut from a two-anda- half-pound teacup Chihuahua to a 175-pound Leonberger named Guthrie (“He looks like a bear,” Rice said. “But he’s just a gentle giant.”). Poodles seem to be ideal bed visit companions.

The PAC program at UCLA is run strictly through donations and the goodwill of the volunteer teams involved. Rice says it requires a significant commitment of time for the volunteers.

“But they have visible proof of the value their love brings these patients,” Rice said. “This has been life changing for me. I spent 14 years in my other career, but I think this is my true calling.”

For more information about People-Animal Connection, visit here. For more information of training dogs as therapy assistants, go to: www.petpartners.org

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