NEW ORLEANS - For 25 years, a group of volunteers has been changing the lives of those in poor health, who can't be at home.
And they do it with the help of companions who are normally banned from hospitals.
They don't wear white coats or stethoscopes around their necks, yet they have the ability to heal.
Since 1987, The Visiting Pet Program has been changing lives of children in hospitals, the elderly and sick in nursing homes and senior centers. They go in with a group that includes dogs, cats, guinea pigs and rabbits as their furry therapists.
"Most of the patients know Olive. They don't know me, but they know Olive," says volunteer Mike Azzarello about his Chihuahua mix, with a laugh.
And it's not because they are cute. Studies show petting a dog can decrease stress hormones, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure. It releases oxytocin, the same hormone that bonds couples after sex and a mother to a child after birth and breast-feeding. Dogs are xenophilic, meaning they love strangers, and unlike humans, their affection comes without expectations and judgment.
"Wonderful. I love them. It raises my spirits. I had two dogs. I had a boxer and a basset hound. His name was Burlap," said Weldon Mischenich, a former French Quarter artist who is now a resident of The John J. Hainkel Jr. Home And Rehabilitation Center in New Orleans.
"On my first visit with McKenzie, a gentleman was calling, 'Help, help, help' from his room. And so my senior buddy who was with me said, 'I'm just going to go let the nurses know. It's probably OK.' And he motioned his hand for us to come closer and once he could touch her, he just immediately started petting her head, (he) calmed down. 'Hey puppy, pretty puppy. Don't leave me. Don't leave me. Stay with me,'" remembers Nicole Parks, who takes her Golden Retriever McKenzie on visits.
Years ago The Visiting Pet Program went to a hospital to visit a little girl who was in a coma. She had been hit by a car. When they took her hand and let her feel the animal's fur, she began to speak and come out of her coma.
From rescued mixes to Westminster Show veterans, when you need a hand to care for your most basic needs, it's a paw that gives us what we so desperately want.
The program also provides a literacy project called Reading To Rover, to area libraries. It is designed to help beginning readers practice their reading skills out loud. The gentle, patient dogs prove to be excellent listeners. Reading To Rover is offered at area libraries in Jefferson Parish.
For more information about the Visiting Pet Program: www.visitingpetprogram.org
Who: The Visiting Pet Program
What: Orientation for new volunteers
When: Sunday, July 14th, 2pm-4pm
Where: Harahan Senior Center, 100 Elodie, Harahan
Why: An opportunity for interested pet owners to learn more
about the Visiting Pet Program and requirements for membership
How: Pre-register by emailing email@example.com
$10.00 fee to attend. No pets permitted