Special Dogs Lend a Healing Paw

Celeste McBee enjoys a visit with Sophie and Meir Horvitz at NorthBay Medical Center.

There’s something about a dog that can bring comfort to the sickest patient. For 12 years, PAWS for Healing volunteer Meir Horvitz of Fairfield has witnessed the magic that the friendly face and wagging tail of a happy dog brings to the halls of NorthBay Medical Center and NorthBay VacaValley Hospital. He is on one of eight teams assigned to the local hospitals.

“There’s something about the unconditional love of a dog that changes people,” Horvitz says. “Their stress level drops and their mood changes and for a while they can forget their problems.”

Every Thursday afternoon, Horvitz and his Shih Tzu dog Sophie spend an hour or two visiting patients and staff at NorthBay Medical Center. “I stop at each nursing station and ask if there is anyone I can’t visit,” Horvitz explains. “I’m welcome in every department, from medical-surgical units to ICU to the ER, but I don’t visit patients in isolation or those too sick to benefit from a dog’s visit.”

The unconditional love of a dog can lower stress levels and improve a patient’s mood. And, for a while, they can forget their problems.

As he makes his rounds, it’s obvious that the staff enjoys his visits as much as the patients. “We’re always welcomed with smiles from the nurses,” Horvitz says. “They need stress relief as much as the patients and I’ll often hear ‘you’ve made my day,’ which of course makes my day, too.”

The comfort dogs bring is not always measured in smiles. Horvitz remembers walking into a room with an empty bed and a solitary man sitting in a chair. He gathered the dog into his lap and sobbed. “You don’t realize what this dog is doing for me,” he told Horvitz. The man’s mother had just died and the dog gave him a safe outlet to express his grief.

PAWS for Healing is a nonprofit organization that uses canine companionship to help heal the sick and comfort the lonely. In addition to hospitals, the volunteers visit convalescent homes, adult day centers, special education classes and assisted living facilities.

Founded in 1998 with a handful of dogs and handlers, they now have more than 200 active teams visiting more than 160 facilities throughout Solano, Napa and Sonoma counties.

Horvitz is now a mentor to other teams of volunteers and their dogs. The organization welcomes all breeds of dogs and accepts them into the program based on an evaluation of their temperament and suitability for the job. If a dog shows any sign of aggression, it is rejected, he explains. Among the successful PAWS for Healing dogs are an Irish Setter, a pit bull, a miniature poodle, a dachshund, a golden retriever, an American Eskimo, a Jack Russell cross and two Labradoodles—a breed first developed to be guide dogs.

“We don’t train dogs, we train people,” Horvitz explains. Prospective volunteers attend an introductory meeting, and then by appointment bring their dog in for a professional evaluation. Once the dog is accepted, the volunteer gets classroom training on protocol, safety and sanitation. The final step is shadowing their mentor in the healthcare setting. On their first visit, the new volunteer shadows their mentor for a day. On the second visit, the mentor shadows the volunteer and dog, giving them advice and support as needed.

Teams can take free advanced training and continuing education classes and workshops are offered by PAWS for Healing several times a year. Visit www.pawsforhealing.org for more information about the Napa-based organization.

Purple Heart for Healing Dog

Purple Heart for Healing DogLittle Amos, the miniature poodle who was Meir Horvitz’s first PAWS for Healing partner, garnered many honorary titles during his years of service. None was more important than the Purple Heart lapel pin he received from a returning veteran.

“We were visiting the Aeromedical Staging Facility at David Grant Medical Center,” Horvitz remembers. “This is where injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan stay before being transferred to hospitals closer to their homes.”

Horvitz was talking with three soldiers, when one of the men walked away. He assumed the man didn’t like dogs. Instead, the soldier returned and pinned the lapel pin from his Purple Heart set on Amos’ jacket and said “This is for the dog.” The lapel pin is the part of the set that soldiers can wear on their civilian clothes.

“I cried,” Horvitz says. “Tears rolled down my cheeks. I’m retired military and I know what the Purple Heart means to these soldiers.”

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