Ari Gould, 6, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia three years ago. In addition to the physical pain he has endured, the disease and the stressful medical procedures that followed have also left him socially isolated.
The steroid treatments he receives once a month have numerous unpleasant side effects, including increases in anxiety levels.
“When he is on steroids he feels really bad,” said Alissa Gould, Ari’s mother.
During those times she arranges for Ari to visit with Ziggy, a friend he made back in April.
“When Ziggy comes, it totally calms him down and is a great distraction,” Gould said.
Only Ziggy isn’t a boy; he’s a golden retriever whom Ari met through Paws of Love.
Started in 2011, Paws of Love is a volunteer-based project of Chai Lifeline that provides seriously ill children with canine companions from Lend a Paw, a pet therapy agency whose teams of handlers and dogs have been through a rigorous training program. The therapy dogs and their trainers help lift the spirits of chronically ill children and fill the social void that often occurs when a child gets sick.
“When someone is hit with an illness out of the blue, the shock and the terror that strikes a family is overwhelming, especially for a pediatric illness,” said Gila Sacks, coordinator for Paws of Love.
First introduced by Boris Levinson in the 1960s, animal-assisted therapy has grown from fewer than 20 programs in the 1980s to more than 1,000 such programs today. Therapy applications include helping children practice reading, assisting with physical therapy, and providing emotional support to senior citizens and war veterans, among others.
Aubrey Fine, author of the textbook, “Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy,” says that while there is little evidence-based research to confirm the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy, that’s beside the point. “There is a lot of qualitative support out there to say that animal-assisted therapies have value,” he said.
Some evidence is beginning to emerge that dogs can help people with cardiovascular disease. Blood pressure in both the human and the dog may be reduced when the person pets the animal, according to Fine, and people who walk their dogs are less likely to have chronic health problems.
Levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that promotes good feelings, also change in humans and animals when the animal is being petted. And when it comes to the emotional benefits of animal-assisted therapies for children, Fine said, “The animal seems to go under a child’s conscious defense mechanism.”
Sharon Vincuilla, director of Lend a Paw, says she regularly sees the positive effects of animal-assisted therapy. “There was a woman at one facility who never talked, but she would talk to the dogs,” she said.
One Chai Lifeline family, Sacks noted, has noticed significant improvement in their children’s communication skills after several sessions of pet therapy.
In addition to Paws of Love, Chai Lifeline offers a wide range of services for all members of a family fighting a childhood illness. Programs include individual and family counseling, telephone support groups, art therapy for patients and siblings, tutoring, help with medical insurance, referrals to specialists and therapists, big brothers and big sisters mentoring, and retreats for parents. All of Chai Lifeline’s services are free, funded by private donations and grants.
Chai Lifeline has “helped us a lot with food and keeping the Sabbath. They have helped with activities Ari could do that were very sanitary and geared toward his age,” Gould said. “They also have programs to help the moms … relax without the kids, to give them some free time. And they are very good with the children.”
During a July visit, Ari ran out to meet Ziggy, despite feeling ill from his steroids.
Ziggy’s handler, Jody Rudy, said she met Ziggy while walking dogs for a golden retriever rescue organization. She says she quickly noticed he was meant to be a therapy dog.
“It was not so much about me, but about my dog. The thing about Ziggy is that when someone is nervous or having a hard time, Ziggy will pick that person out of a crowd and sit next to them. I saw this in him, and so I wanted to use him to benefit other people.”
Rudy wanted to make sure she was not forcing Ziggy into a job that was against his nature, so she barely trained him at all before the therapy dog exam. “I read what he was supposed to do … and I made the determination that if he was ready to be a therapy dog, he would pass that test. ... And he did. It was really easy for him to do it.”
Rudy chose New Leash on Life to get Ziggy certified for therapy, because they make a point of choosing shelter dogs to be trained for therapy.
Although he was too tired to play outside, Ari gave Ziggy his full attention for most of the visit, petting him while telling his visitors about his recent experience at summer camp.
“Ari just lights up when he sees Ziggy,” Rudy said.
For more information about Paws of Love, call (310) 274-6331 or visit chailifeline.org.