Healing Vets Through the Love of Pets

By Carly Klein, Los Angeles Region Americorps Member

Photos courtesy of Actors and Others for Animals

It’s no secret that dogs are a man’s best friend. Writer Milan Kundera once said of dogs, “Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden.” Personally, whenever I see a dog, I can’t help but smile. This feeling – the immense happiness that stems from animal interaction – can be especially beneficial for veterans who lack companionship in the hospital or who suffer from PTSD.

When I first started visiting veterans at the West LA VA Hospital, I sensed that my service could be enhanced if I extended volunteer opportunities to our cute, cuddly friends. As an Americorps Member, there’s only so much I can bring to a veteran: a magazine, a toothbrush, a pair of socks, etc. Pets can provide companionship, feelings of unconditional love, memories of the dog that you had as a child, and most importantly, sheer joy.

Science has demonstrated the positive effects of animal-assisted therapy.  Research shows how interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin, which helps us feel happy and trusting. With all this in mind, I set out to find an organization that Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces and Veterans could partner with for a ‘Pets for Vets’ initiative.

Enter Actors and Others for Animals, a non-profit dedicated to the promotion of the humane treatment of animals. Actors and Others has a pet therapy program which creates an environment that provides animals to combat loneliness and aid in the healing process.  Actors & Others screens and certifies each animal to ensure that the therapy pets will bring nothing but joy.

Their program has a sub-division titled “ROMP: Reconnecting with Our Military Personnel,” a group that conducts animal therapy visits to VA facilities across LA. The program director, Barbara Gordon, invited me on a visit, where she told me more details. Barbara’s father fought in World War II so she “felt an immense sense to give back to veterans.”  When I asked about the visits, she said, “The dogs take the edge off. If someone’s having a tough day at the hospital, I let the dogs do the magic.”  

One of the most unique aspects about Actors & Others is their connection to Hollywood. They were founded in 1971 by actor Richard Basehart and their board members include actresses Betty White and Lily Tomlin. Each therapy dog is a retired movie actor: well-trained, full of affection, and in need of love and attention. One of the dogs, Bonnie, was in the movie Seven Psychopaths and is pictured here with Christopher Walken. Another dog, Owen, was recently in Insidious 3.

I’ve been fortunate enough to join their visits and see how much joy these dogs can bring to the hospitalized veterans. I feel so much happiness when I see Bonnie curl up in the lap of veteran in a wheelchair, or when a veteran feels comfortable enough to tell us stories of their childhood pet. After one visit, Barbara was approached by hospital staff and told, “Before you brought your dogs here, I hadn’t heard that patient speak one word. After petting the dogs, he has been smiling and chatting away all afternoon”. The healing power of animals is nothing short of miraculous. I am looking forward to joining more VA pet therapy visits, strengthening our partnership with Actors and Others, and seeing more Red Cross volunteers provide additional support.

If you or someone you know has a dog who would make an excellent therapy pet, please reach out to me at carly.klein@redcross.org and I will connect you with Barbara for an interview.

Learn more about our partner organization, Actors and Others, on their website here: http://actorsandothers.com/.

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