By Stephanie Derammelaere
There is nothing quite like a furry hug from a dog to quell the pain for a patient undergoing a medical procedure; the non-judgmental, patient ears of a dog to build the confidence of a young reluctant reader; or a nudge of a wet nose to lift the sadness of an individual who just lost a loved one. All this and more is what 4Paws, based in Rohnert Park, offers to the community.
The organization first started in 2010 when a group of like-minded individuals recognized the need for a social therapy organization in Sonoma County. The group became a nonprofit in 2011 and created a mission “to ensure and enrich the relationship between people and their pets through education and service to the community.” To that end, they developed four major programs, with social therapy being their keystone service that started the organization. Since then, they added classes to the community in the topics of learning, nutrition and wellness.
“The social therapy program trains people to use their dogs in therapeutic ways in either healthcare or educational venues,” says Joanne Yates, President and Co-Founder of 4Paws who runs the organization with the help of Lori Bowling, Treasurer and Financial Officer, Michelle Lua, Administrative Director, Glenda Ayres, Special Events and Training Director and Robin Marshall, Evaluator. “That involves training, classes and mentoring. We need to track the volunteers’ hours, make sure the dog’s vaccination records are current, do recertifications, and so forth.”
Today, 4Paws has a team of 135 volunteers that bring their canine companions to residential care facilities, hospitals, libraries and classrooms that need comfort and a furry friend in Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties, as well as San Francisco. They regularly visit 22 schools in the area and are in demand at others but are limited only by the number of volunteers.
“Studies have proven that the hormones that are released when you feel joy will last for a considerable amount of time,” says Yates. “It’s not just for that hour where the dog is with a student. The hormone, oxytocin, that’s released ends up affecting the behavior and the emotional levels of the students for days if not a week. We’ve seen that in patients too. For patients that have been very depressed, the staff have told us after we visited that the patient was better for many days afterwards. Also, people want to cooperate - they don’t want to upset the dogs. The same thing happens in the classroom. You have kids really learning to be empathetic and being kinder to each other because they want to be kind to the dog. There are so many lessons kids can learn from dogs.”
One off-shoot of the social therapy program is 4Paw’s “Readers of the Pack” program in which children are invited to read to 4Paws dogs at the Healdsburg, Windsor, Rincon Valley and Rohnert Park Public libraries. In doing so, students improve their literacy skills and earn free books by reading to their “listening” canines. Children often feel more comfortable practicing, making mistakes and trying out different reading strategies to a dog versus a human. The result is that they become more confident readers.
Besides social therapy, 4Paws offers classes to the community on a variety of topics including pet nutrition, canine behavior, positive training methods, exercise programs and adjunct therapies such as massage and acupuncture. Not only do the classes aim to keep dogs healthy and happy, but their owners too.
“The other part of our mission is looking at nutrition and learning how to feed our dogs and nourish them,” says Yates. “We teach how vegetables or certain herbs can be added to the dog’s diet and are very beneficial for their bodies. In doing that we also try and help people learn about herbs and vegetables and nutrition for themselves. Often when we learn how to do something for someone else we then apply it to ourselves. If people start caring about their dog’s health and nutrition, they begin to look at themselves and their health in a different way.”
In the same way, when dog owners learn more about the physical exercise their dogs need for optimal wellness, they too begin to exercise more themselves and learn how to live longer and age better.
4Paws is always looking for more two and four-legged volunteers to help fill the need that is exponentially increasing since the organization first started.
“If people have a people-loving dog that they think would make a good therapy dog, go to our website,” advises Yates. “There is more need than we can fill. We get calls and emails all the time from people asking for our help. There are a lot of schools we don’t go to because we don’t have enough people. We’re gaining traction in San Francisco now because we go to Family House and Kaiser Permanente, and the library there. UCSF would like us to develop a program for their geriatric unit. I really love looking at the opportunities that are given us to help others.”
For local children interested in the Reader of the Pack program, 4Paws is at the Rohnert Park Cotati Library most Wednesday afternoons from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.