To say the desert is going to the dogs — or horses, for that matter — is far from a slight. Rather, the Coachella Valley is home to an impressive host of animal-centric organizations that make it their mission to help desert residents through interaction with trained, caring animals.
When veteran Chicago ad man Michael Neu moved to the desert full time in 2011, he soon realized his retirement years weren’t going to be about lowering his golf handicap. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” Neu recalls. “I have these incredibly trained dogs and thought I could do volunteer work for an organization that already exists. But I’d always owned my own business and am much better as a boss than an employee and understand those with disabilities and the special needs community in a unique way.”
For Neu — whose wife is an award-winning journalist for ABC News in Chicago and is deaf — this understanding led him to create K-9 Friendly Visitors (k-9friendlyvisitors.org), a nonprofit he founded three years ago that aims to improve the lives of the disabled community of the desert. Neu’s dogs — Amos, Lana, and Rain (who is blind) — are all registered therapy and hearing-ear service dogs with Canine Good Citizen certification.
For what Neu envisioned as an experiential venture, he gathered experts in the medical and disability fields to discuss how his dogs could “increase mental health, self-esteem, and academic excellence of special needs students.”
In short time, Neu’s golden years have created golden moments for area children with special needs, along with the blind, visually impaired, and aging. Together with his Friendly Visitor companions, Neu sees more than 400 individuals regularly, which includes visits to most of the school-age population with disabilities in the valley, the Braille Institute in Rancho Mirage, and the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert.
Neu, who works from specific lesson plans for each visit, is expanding the definition of animal therapy. “We’re ‘animal-assisted therapy plus,’” he says. Neu cites a recent success story as an example: “I work with a student, Juan, who is in a wheelchair with limited use of his hands,” he says. “We worked on gripping a brush, and through his ability to gain hand strength and grip the brush, he was able to start grooming Rain. He was then able to go from a manual wheelchair to an electric one because he gained the strength and feel to work the toggle.”
Operating since 1972, Guide Dogs of the Desert (guidedogsof thedesert.org) has placed more than 1,300 custom-trained dogs in the hands of the blind and visually impaired. Wholly reliant on philanthropy for support, the Whitewater-based nonprofit takes its dogs through a five-phase training program that ultimately creates a match with a specified client.
Armed with its own breeding program and on-site training campus, the organization makes an investment in a dog from the time it’s bred until it graduates that reaches $40,000 — and everything is provided at no cost to the client.
“All of that walks out the door on six paws,” says Sarah Clapp, executive director of Guide Dogs of the Desert. “Well, four paws and two feet.”
Volunteer “puppy raisers” foster the organization’s Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, and standard poodles from the time the dogs are 12 weeks old until they reach 18 to 20 months, a span that includes ample fieldwork. Thorough, praise-based formal training ensues with licensed instructors on campus while Guide Dogs staff conducts a comprehensive interview process with each prospective client.
“Every component of that person’s life is taken into consideration,” Clapp explains. “Then, a dog that has been in basic formal training is custom-trained 30 days out to closer match the needs of the applicant.”
An on-site, 28-day training process with client and dog takes the pair through real-life scenarios that serve as the building blocks for a lifetime match.
“In effect, the dog is providing independence to that person that they are partnered with, if you will, so their independence can be very similar to that of a person who does have vision,” Clapp says. “It truly is a bond. And every time we see a (postgraduate) client, that bond becomes even deeper and stronger. It’s very, very powerful.”
The red bandannas donned by the “Canine Ambassadors” of Paws & Hearts (pawsandhearts.org) animal assisted therapy wave as flags of elation for the tens of thousands of people every year who welcome the nonprofit’s four-legged bedside guests.
Founded by Palm Desert’s Richard Waxman in 2000, Paws & Hearts works to enrich the lives of frail and special care patients with a team of volunteer therapy dogs who visit patients at Eisenhower Medical Center, Desert Regional Medical Center, and 90 percent of the long-term care facilities across the valley.
“The real training for this type of work is on the job,” says Waxman, who coordinates a team of 40 human volunteers and their 46 Canine Ambassadors, who must first pass a temperament test. “The first week, the dog doesn’t know why the heck you’re taking it to a nursing home and putting it on a bed with a bunch of strangers,” he says. “On about the third or fourth week, the dog goes into the facility and remembers folks that like him or her the most. Patients know the dog by name, and it really is amazing to watch clients say to the dog, ‘I waited all week to see you. I saved you a bit of bacon from breakfast.’ ’’
Paws & Hearts’ human handlers make a commitment to visit an assigned facility every week at the same time. Waxman estimates that 2013 brought 110,000 bedside stops, with each individual visit lasting approximately seven minutes.
With the group nearing its 15th anniversary, Waxman continues to marvel at the effect a dog can have on a patient in need of a smile. “Some years ago, my dog Scruffy and I were at Eisenhower visiting a woman who had lost almost all her hair from chemo treatment,” Waxman recalls. “Scruffy kisses hands, but this woman was sitting up in bed, and Scruffy walked up behind her, stood up, put his paws on her shoulders, and started to lick her earlobes. I said, ‘Scruffy, what are you doing? Get down.’ And the woman said, ‘How does your dog know my earlobes are so sensitive from the chemo? This feels so good. Please, don’t make him stop. I haven’t felt this good in a long time.’ There were many tears all around from that visit.”
Canines are likely companions for humans in need of a friend. But horses, too, can be one of the most comforting creatures for those open to bonding with them.
The vast wings at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding (pegasusridingacademy.org) lift the hopes of all who visit the nonprofit’s stables in Palm Desert. Established in 1982 and rescued from demise by onetime volunteer and current Pegasus president Lori Sarner four years later, the organization’s equine riding therapy strives to improve quality of life for children and adults with disabilities.
“And we do that at no cost,” says Pegasus Chief Operating Officer Chase Berke, who also serves as vice president of equine therapy. “We don’t charge any of our riders to participate in the program, which makes us unique in the world of equine therapeutic riding.”
Working with children from all three Coachella Valley school districts who have mild, moderate, or severe disabilities, Pegasus buses in kids for weekly 30-minute rides. Additionally, Pegasus hosts clients from myriad valley organizations, including disabled youth from Desert Arc and Angel View.
“The kids laugh and smile and are so elated — it’s amazing to see the joy on their faces,” Berke says. “These kids are pure love; they give us so much and really touch our hearts. We see their ability rather than their disability.”
According to Berke, equine therapy offers countless benefits, including assistance with speech, social skills, hand-eye coordination, digestion, and attention and focus. “We put five to seven riders in the arena at a time, and each rider has three volunteers working with them, one horse leader and two side walkers,” she explains. “The most important thing is constant encouragement and praise to the riders for their attempts.”
Riding also encourages physical fitness. “We do that by using full-body range-of-motion physical exercise for mental therapy on horseback. Being on the horse is helping them with their balance and core strength,” Berke says. “We’re working muscles that don’t get worked — or need to be worked — to help them be more mobile. And we’re toning the muscles that the riders do use.”
Concurrent to improving quality of life for its riders, Pegasus also helps its horses: All were donated or rescued. “It’s a great program, because we’re not only helping the people with special needs, but we’re also helping and saving animals,” Berke says.
Additionally, Pegasus works to better the lives of many of its team of 120 pre-screened volunteers, from teens to octogenarians. Along with nurses from College of the Desert and Marines from the Twentynine Palms base who visit to assist riders, Pegasus further welcomes volunteers who have disabilities and helpers from a local rehabilitation center. “When they get to a certain point in recovery, they can come help out at the ranch,” Berke says. “So it helps them get back to a better quality of life.”
At Five Hearts Healing Arts (5hearts.org) in Morongo Valley, horses play an integral role in equine-facilitated psychotherapy, which usually does not include riding but relies instead on the emotional interaction between humans and horses.
Gail Hromadko (pictured at right), who has more than 25 years of experience as a traditional marriage and family therapist, was introduced to equine therapy in 2003, which led her to open the Five Hearts facility five years later. “In the course of being a traditional therapist, I started wondering what the nature of healing really was,” Hromadko recalls.
Offering a variety of workshops designed to create healing connections between participants and rescue horses, Five Hearts’ goal is to provide curative experiences for clients who have dealt with challenges ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression, chemical dependency, and anxiety. Working with individuals and small groups, Hromadko’s intimate facility serves on a cost-per-class basis but is in the process of adding a nonprofit branch with workshops for at-risk youth.
For first-time visitors, Five Hearts’ “Reconnecting With Self” workshop serves as an introductory opportunity for clients to learn about horses as healers while defining their own mending intentions.
“People come and learn why horses are such effective therapy animals,” Hromadko says of the Reconnecting workshop. “We do some basic safety work, so they know how to move around horses, and then it’s essentially a nonverbal process. The client enters the arena with the horse of their choosing — or the horse that chooses them — and in the interaction of that relationship, metaphors develop that are reflective of the client’s life.”
According to Hromadko, the visceral rapport between humans and horses results in a mirrored (and powerful) effect of empathy.
“Animals like horses with eyes on the sides of their head have a completely different way of interpreting their world because they’re prey animals,” she explains. “They’re constantly reading their environment; horses are very astute with what they see and store because their lives really depend on it. Horses are reading us in their environment constantly, and that’s what makes them so able to give feedback.”
A Human Touch
Animals, too, need a helping hand.
Here’s where you can help animals locally, from adopting a pet to donating and volunteering.
Animal Samaritans SPCA
72307 Ramon Rd., Thousand Palms
Coachella Valley Animal Campus
72050 Pet Land Place, Thousand Palms
Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center
46500 Van Buren St., Indio
Forever Free Horse Rescue
78450 Ave. 41, Bermuda Dunes
Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter
4575 E. Mesquite Ave., Palm Springs
The Furry Angel Foundation
72877 Dinah Shore Dr., Ste. 103, Rancho Mirage
Humane Society of the Desert
17825 N. Indian Canyon Dr., North Palm Springs
Loving All Animals
73550 Alessandro Dr., Palm Desert
The Pet Rescue Center
83496 Ave. 51, Coachella
Save A Pet
67600 18th Ave., Desert Hot Springs