"We're licking loneliness" is the motto held by the all-volunteer Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services, a registered non-profit organization serving Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.
Volunteers from all over the South Bay, including Cupertino, visit hospitals, convelscent homes, Juvenile Hall, family shelters and other facilities, to lift the spirits of patients and residents.
Once a month, several of its numerous volunteers bring their pet dogs to visit the elderly nuns at thein the hills above the Los Gatos Library. The religious women's faces light up when they see the animals.
As eager hands pet the well-behaved pooches on their heads and backs, the volunteers and some of the nuns engage in lively conversations, further brightening the residents' day.
A variety of pet therapy organizations exist around the world because scientific research has shown that interactions with friendly animals can have a positive effect on people's mental and physical conditions. At the very least, individuals become more responsive when an animal visits them.
"All of us have so many stories of special moments that happen when sharing the love of our pets with others," says Furry Friends volunteer Anne Tiry, who visits the convent and three other Furry Friends sites each month. "It’s just a wonderful program, a real 'win' for everyone—the people we visit, our animals and ourselves."
The Furry Friends organization was founded in 1983 by Judy Kell, a South Bay mother whose young daughter had a fatal form of cancer. The child had a cat that brought some visible happiness into her fading life when it interacted with her. As a result, Kell formed the idea of benefitting other ill children through pet visits. With her help, the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital become the first institution to allow Furry Friends volunteers and their pets on its premises as a form of therapy for its patients.
Today, the Furry Friends organization serves people of all ages. The Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and the Convent of the Holy Names are two of 65 sites visited regularly by more than 300 Furry Friends volunteers and their pets. Visits are made to nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, psychiatric facilities, Juvenile Hall, family shelters and library programs, among others. In addition to the dogs, approved cats, lizards, snakes, guinea pigs, rabbits, pet mice and, depending on the site, larger animals also cheer the spirits of people at a facility.
Tiry began volunteering with Furry Friends after she observed her mother receiving a pet visit while she was in a rehab facility in Tennessee.
"I thought I could 'pay it forward' in the sense that, when I got back home, maybe I could do the same thing for other people," Tiry says. "Maybe I could brighten the day of a person who didn’t have anyone else to visit, and at the same time, spend some quality time with my dog."
Loree McQueen is the Furry Friends administrator and has visited the convent with a dog for 10 years. She explains that before dogs can visit a site with a volunteer, the animals must first pass a pet etiquette class, be approved by an animal behaviorist and be up-to-date on all vaccinations. All the volunteers visiting a site must wear their own name badge and a badge for the dog that shows their vaccinations' expiration date.
Ellen Fattal, the Convent of the Holy Names activities director, says a small number of the nuns who live in the convent still teach or do outreach in the community.
Sr. Mary Berchmans Trentacoste is among those who are wheelchair-bound. In addition to enjoying the monthly Furry Friends visits, she gets a weekly visit from a friend's lively Chihuahua. The little dog makes her and other nuns laugh as it barks fiercely at the much larger Furry Friends dogs during their visits. To their credit, the other dogs ignore it, concentrating instead on doing their job of getting petted.
About this column: Each week, Susan Wiedmann will write about nature or outdoor activities enjoyed by local residents. Susan is a longtime freelance writer and photographer with a passion for capturing wildlife through her camera's lens. Please leave any comments about this article at the bottom of this page. You can contact Susan about possible topics atSusan@UpCloseWithMotherNature.com or at UpCloseWithMotherNature.com.