Children find solace with therapy dog
The toddlers spot him the instant he steps out of his office. They swarm him like bees, shouting his name: "Archie! Archie! Archie! " He drops to...
Los Angeles Times
The toddlers spot him the instant he steps out of his office. They swarm him like bees, shouting his name:
"Archie! Archie! Archie!"
He drops to the ground, eye-level with 3-year-olds. They lean into him, hug him, climb on him.
At Casa Pacifica, a Ventura County, Calif., oasis for abused, neglected and emotionally disturbed children, patience and calm aren't just virtues; they're job requirements. Archie has worked at the campus in Camarillo, Calif., for two years, and he doesn't flinch when small hands pull his ears and fingers poke his nostrils.
Instead, he bestows slobbery kisses with a pink tongue as large as a hand towel.
"Yucky!" the kids squeal, hugging the 165-pound dog all the harder.
Archie was Vicki Murphy's idea.
Her boss, Steven Elson, a psychologist and Casa Pacifica's executive director, was initially skeptical of so-called therapy dogs. Her husband was doubtful for different reasons; he knew where the massive canine, who looks like an extra-fuzzy black bear but is actually a Newfoundland, would spend nights and weekends.
But Murphy, 51, Casa Pacifica's director of operations and development, had watched dogs work magic with children before. A former private-school teacher, she once raised a puppy in her classroom. If dogs could teach privileged children about responsibility and nurturing, Murphy thought, maybe they could help kids whose human role models had failed them utterly.
Besides, she'd said to her husband when they picked up the 9-week-old Archie, then just 26 pounds, "How big can he get?"
Murphy chose a Newfoundland because they are gentle, playful, lovable galoots whose devotion to children has earned them accolades as natural baby-sitters. According to the American Kennel Club, "Sweetness of temperament is the hallmark of the Newfoundland."
Some children are initially frightened of Archie, but they quickly get over it.
"Immediately the kids sense someone who is warm and cuddly. Being near him gives them a great sense of security," said Howard Miller, a Casa Pacifica therapist.
Wired teenagers walk out their frustrations next to Archie. Lonely adolescents sit beside him on the lawn, arms draped across his broad back. Kids who are having trouble in school practice reading aloud to him.
A toddler who was 11 months old when she arrived at Casa Pacifica spoke her first word there: "Archie."
Dog people don't need proof that a wagging tail can salvage even the worst day. But researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center have actually quantified the therapeutic value.
A study presented at the American Heart Association's 2005 conference monitored heart and lung function and stress hormones in 76 heart-failure patients randomly assigned to one of three groups. In the group visited by a dog, anxiety levels dropped 24 percent, compared with a 10 percent drop in patients visited by a human volunteer and no drop in those with no visitor.
At Casa Pacifica, Archie starts each day by greeting everyone who works there. Unfolding from the back seat of Murphy's Chrysler in the morning, he pokes his big, square head into every office before posting himself at the door to await the children.
Like many large breeds, Newfies are prone to joint problems. Most recently, Archie blew out his hip playing with Tallulah, Murphy's Shih Tzu, a silken-haired dog about the size of a loaf of bread.
As Archie recovered, handmade get-well cards covered Casa Pacifica's walls and doors. The kids missed him. Home alone, the dog howled.
Murphy decided that work was the best medicine, and so Archie limped back to the office, his leg in a cast. And children who had known great callousness in their lives treated the giant canine with exquisite tenderness.
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