Therapy pets

Danica Di Paola, 14, of Glendale, interacts with Essex, a 2-year-old red doberman pinscher. Therapy Dogs International handlers were on hand with their dogs oat The La Cañada Thursday Club's Power of Pets event. They showed the attendees how the pets can relax and lift the spirits of patients in hospitals and other care facilities. (Photo courtesy of Mike Mullen / January 27, 2013)

When life fails to deliver a miracle, sometimes compassion, love and understanding will walk through the door on four sturdy legs.

Variations of that theme were retold several times Sunday afternoon at the La Cañada Thursday Club when members of the nonprofit Hollywood Dog Obedience Club and their enthusiastic but polite therapy dogs shared the rewards of providing animal-assisted therapy to people in need.

Dog owner Jerry Werk of Santa Clarita told a story of her bushy Briard therapy dog, Liza, who accompanies her on monthly visits to Verdugo Hills Hospital. The dog and her owner were recently making their rounds when Werk poked her head into the hospital room of a man recovering from a leg amputation. The man was uninterested in seeing guests, so Werk began walking away.

“Then Liza stuck her head in, and the man said, ‘Wait a minute, I've got to see this dog,'” Werk said.

The therapy dog plopped her head onto the man's bed as he slowly sat up to pet her. Disarmed by the attention of a sweet-natured therapy animal, the man began talking about how he missed his own dog and about other recent losses — his marriage, his home and now his leg.

“We probably spent 20 minutes in his room,” Werk remembered.

Then the doctor and physical therapist walked in, both extremely surprised at what they were seeing.

“We haven't been able to get you to sit up,” the doctor said.

“I just had to get up to pet this dog,” the man replied.

Such examples of therapy animals breaking through walls of emotional hurt and isolation are commonplace, according to Saunders. For her, the most rewarding therapy dog moment came during a visit to Hathaway-Sycamores, a Pasadena child and family services facility that helps at-risk boys ages 7 to 17.

Her German shepherd, Baltic, bonded with one quiet boy who began telling the dog about his fears, challenges and how he misses his family.

“The dog will not make judgmental comments,” Saunders said. “The dog just listens.”

Besides hospitals, therapy dogs — and in some cases cats, horses and even dolphins — have been used at mental institutions, nursing homes and prisons around the world. Therapy animals are used to help people with their emotional outlook and even promote healing. Canine therapy dogs, which first must be certified through an agency specializing in therapy animal training and education, can be mixed or purebred. Participating dogs are tested and evaluated to ensure they have the proper temperament for therapy work.

La Cañada Thursday Club President Gale Caswell said the presentation was perfect for members and friends of the 100-year-old club, which assists the community through philanthropy and service.

For more information on therapy dogs, call Therapy Dogs International at (973) 252-9800 or visit www.tdi-dog.org. Also, Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena is seeking volunteers and their dogs for its Pet Assisted Therapy program. For more information, call (626) 397-5208 or email stacy.miller@huntingtonhospital.com.