Founder and Executive Director Karen Lee Stevens with Molly | Credit: Courtesy

With a motto of “Happiness has four legs and a purple bandana,” Therapy Dogs of Santa Barbara not only spreads happiness but also transforms lives, according to Founder and Executive Director Karen Lee Stevens. While COVID has prevented hands-on experiences, Stevens and her dedicated volunteers are finding creative ways to serve the community during this difficult time.

This fall, Therapy Dogs of Santa Barbara pivoted its school-based Mindful Kids program to a Zoom-based one at Vieja Valley Elementary School. Instructors, with their dogs alongside them, teach 6th grade students skills to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and to increase focus and resilience. This winter, the program will expand to Hope Elementary and soon the organization hopes to operate at nonprofit organizations, as well. Teachers laud the program, not only for the benefits to the students, but for their own benefit, too. Therapy Dogs also began creating Mindfulness videos geared toward children, which it posts on its Facebook page.

Its signature program, ARF! (Animals + Reading = Fun) also had to adapt to the pandemic. Pre-COVID, the program paired human and dog volunteer teams with kids in grades 1-3, many of whom were English learners, to improve their reading skills. With the onset of COVID came the creation of Virtual Storytime. Volunteers record videos of themselves reading, with their dogs alongside, and the videos get posted on the Facebook page. This enables teams to stay engaged with the participating kids and families and to connect with others in the community. There are even some Spanish-language videos. Having received lots of positive feedback about the program from the community, Stevens and her volunteers are now planning holiday-themed stories.

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ARF! began in 2013, and pre-COVID, there were 16 volunteer therapy dog teams who visited four schools. Demand for the program outstripped the supply such that in the last school year, the eight-week program shifted to four weeks to double the number of participating students.

Volunteers are the heart and soul of the organization, according to Stevens, and many volunteered at multiple school sites every week to help meet the demand. To build trust, teams met with the same students each week. A bond quickly developed, Stevens related, and each week, the children ran to greet their dog friend.

The idea behind ARF!, according to Stevens, is that a child who struggles with anxiety, low self-esteem, a learning disability, or a language barrier can overcome these issues by reading aloud to a specially trained dog. The program gives disadvantaged children the opportunity to experience the unconditional love dogs offer. For many of these students, Stevens shared, this may be the only one-on-one time they receive, and they love the experience. Students improve their reading and increase their self-confidence at the same time.

Volunteer Kim Lieberman and Lily Rose | Credit: Courtesy

Volunteer Kim Lieberman joined the ARF! Program seven years ago after retiring from a 30-year teaching career, where she worked with 2nd and 3rd grade English learners. Reading aloud to a dog, according to Lieberman, adds an element of joyfulness to a task that has been a struggle for many of these students. Away from the classroom and engaged with the dogs, Lieberman related, the kids’ anxiety about reading is lowered immediately. “They start to feel safe in taking risks and making mistakes because there is no judgment from the dogs.” Confidence builds, and, in just a few sessions, reading fluency improves. as well. Many kids share that they now actually like reading.

ARF! and Mindful Kids both offer the additional benefit of easing fears that kids may have toward dogs. Since fear can lead to mistreatment, related Stevens, this is a valuable component of the program.

Child with therapy dog Aye’la pre-COVID | Credit: Courtesy

Therapy Dogs also has a Wag Well, Be Well therapy dog program at Santa Barbara City College that adapted to COVID by going online earlier this month. In this Zoom-based event, about 25 SBCC students signed on to meet nine therapy dog teams, with each human introducing her dog and sharing some of their ARF! experiences. According to SBCC Student Health & Wellness Services Advisor Becky Bean, the event helped students de-stress and connect during this challenging and isolating time. During finals week next month, Therapy Dogs will do another virtual event.

Since 2014, therapy dog teams have visited with SBCC students on campus the week before finals and starting in 2019, during a monthly Wag Well, Be Well event. According to Stevens, there is science behind the practice:  Petting a dog lowers the stress-causing hormone cortisol and increases the happy hormone, endorphin. SBCC students, according to Lieberman, are really enthusiastic about the program and very hands-on with every dog. One can almost see their stress melting away, Lieberman related, which is especially helpful before finals. During these visits before finals, 400-500 students and faculty would participate.  Stevens shared that many students have said that it is their favorite day of the year.

Other sites that Therapy Dogs of Santa Barbara visited last year were Assisted Living S.B., CALM (Child Abuse Listening & Mediation), Carpinteria Family School, Girls Inc. (three sites), Jodi House, Maravilla, and the Westside Boys & Girls Club. Stevens related how people of all ages benefit from the visits. The elderly reminisce about dogs that they owned and loved earlier in life, and for those with dementia, who communicate little, a therapy dog can produce sudden smiles and engagement.

In January, Therapy Dogs will resume its five-week therapy dog training program for prospective volunteer teams. The course is not required but is recommended because it teaches not only basic commands but also specific, relevant skills like being comfortable around medical equipment. Teams must pass an evaluation to participate in the organization’s programs. In the past six years, about 550 dogs have completed the class.

Instructor Cat Smith with Cali Cupcake and students in Mindful Kids session pre-COVID | Credit: Courtesy

All Therapy Dogs programs are free. Stevens is the only paid staff member of this otherwise volunteer-based organization, which relies solely on private grants and donations. For more info or to donate, click here. For videos, click here.

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