The healing power of pets is shared by Pre-Vet Club students in an award-winning community service partnership with CARE NC.
It’s an October Tuesday evening at the SPCA Curtis Dail Pet Adoption Center in Raleigh, and class is in session. Four shelter dogs – Teenny, Penny, Sadie and Curtis – are being trained for their new jobs as agents of comfort for the elderly, while enhancing their own chances to land in loving homes. Their also-in-training handlers are student members of the Pre-Vet Medical Association at N.C. State University, also known as the Pre-Vet Club, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
For the last two years the club has been working with Canine Assisted Rehabilitation for the Elderly, or CARE NC, a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of senior citizens and increasing the adoptability of shelter dogs in Wake County. In recognition of these efforts, this past April, the club received the Deborah S. Moore Memorial Service Award for an Outstanding Service Program by CSLEPS (Center for Student Leadership, Ethics & Public Service) at N.C. State. This award goes to a project that has had a great impact on the community.
Preparing for their part in continuing that impact by visiting senior citizens at assisted living homes, the four dogs tonight are practicing a number of behavioral lessons: First, to not be daunted by the kinds of devices they will encounter at homes, such as walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Second is to be comfortable with being touched, petted and hugged. Third is to be able to encounter crowds and stay calm as groups approach, perhaps quickly and noisily. And fourth, they must demonstrate the ability to ride contentedly in a car to get to the visits.
Anais Estrada, a CALS senior in animal science, is the Pre-Vet Club’s senior liaison with CARE NC. She is overseeing tonight’s session, along with the club’s junior CARE liaison Catherine Bartholf, a junior in animal science, and training director Jo Murphy of CARE NC.
Putting the dogs through their paces tonight are a group of Pre-Vet Club members, including primary handlers, who have already completed four weeks of training, paired with secondary handlers, who are in the third of their own four weeks of training with the SPCA dogs.
Jessica Battoglia, a junior in animal science, and Kathryn Nilsson, a sophomore in animal science and zoology, are handling Teenny, a young white pit bull. Morgan Ross and Ashley McDonald, both seniors in animal science, are working with Sadie, a beagle mix. Reshma Patel, a junior in zoology, and Brittainy Maxfield, a freshman in animal science, are handling Penny, a brown mixed breed. And Tia Simon, a junior in biology, leads Curtis, who appears to have a mastiff’s head and a basset hound’s body.
When the night’s lessons conclude, each dog is evaluated by Murphy and then either passed to start making visits or given “homework” to do with its handler for the next session. At tonight’s session, Curtis passes muster and is ready for his first therapy visit.
“This is Curtis’ second week, and he did amazing. He loves interaction,” said Murphy.
Once dogs have passed training, the students take them on Thursday evenings, when the SPCA is closed, to visit at assisted living homes, such as Heritage of Raleigh and The Oaks.
“Each assisted living facility has an assigned supervisor with CARE,” Murphy said.
“The dogs are selected through some temperament testing by Molly Stone, the behaviorist at the SPCA,” Estrada explained. “They continue to live at the SPCA during the program, and we work around the SPCA. They are cared for by the SPCA, and we technically borrow them for the program. A lot of the dogs get adopted while we have them in the program. We take dogs from them only while the SPCA is closed [on Thursdays], because we do not want to decrease their availability for adoption.”
On weekends, community alternate dogs accompanied by pre-vet students, as well as N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) students and volunteers, make the visits.
“Community alternates usually go through the same testing; they will also come to a class on Tuesday to be cleared. There are also some vet school students with their own dogs,” Estrada said.
“Pre-vet students are the main handlers of the shelter dogs, and the community alternates range from business professionals to veterinary students at the CVM,” added CVM second-year student Danielle Lindquist, who was a CALS undergraduate when the partnership with CARE came about.
“Back in May 2011, I was just elected the president of the Pre-Vet Club for my senior year,” Lindquist said. “Dr. Julianne Davis-Christ, a local veterinarian and graduate from NCSU-CVM, contacted me to form a partnership with CARE NC Inc., not only to give pre-vet students an unmatched experience in dog behavior and handling, but to improve the lives of the shelter dogs and elderly in Wake County.”
The two set up a working partnership that has grown from six pre-vet students to more than 50, including the waiting list to work with the dogs and take part in the unique partnership.
“At first, I was the pre-vet club volunteer coordinator throughout my senior year, working with another pre-vet Liz Hyde,” said Lindquist. “Throughout the year, we coordinated over 30 pre-vet students through the program. Once I graduated in 2012 and went on to join the NCSU-CVM, I wanted to continue my involvement, and my role developed into the volunteer coordinator. Currently, I organize the weekly visits and schedule the community volunteers to visit along with working with the pre-vet students.
“The Pre-Vet Club’s role in this organization is to train the shelter dogs on a weekly basis and visit the selected assisted living facilities,” she said. “They also are the main outreach body, representing CARE NC at several events, including the NCSU Dog Olympics and on campus volunteer events.”
The dogs, sponsored by local businesses or individuals, wear vests identifying them as therapeutic visitors, with the sponsor’s name on the side, Lindquist said.
“Some therapy dogs pay informal social visits to people to boost their spirits, while others work in a more structured environment with trained professionals like physical therapists and social workers to help patients reach clinical goals, such as increased mobility or improved memory,” Lindquist explained. “CARE NC’s mission is simple: To transform the lives of the elderly of Wake County through the healing power of dogs.”
Estrada first got involved when Lindquist presented the project to the Pre-Vet Club two years ago.
“I fell in love the program instantly and knew I had to be a part of it,” she said. “After I was finished as a primary handler, I started to coordinate for the visits to the Heritage assisted living facility, and then ran for the CARE junior [liaison] position, so I could continue to be part of the training on Tuesdays. Currently I am the CARE senior liaison, where I am training
Catherine Bartholf how to run/plan the Tuesday classes and coordinate the SPCA dog/pre-vet visits for Thursdays.”
Estrada was also part of a Sunday excursion on October 6, when she and two other handlers and their own adopted rescue dogs accompanied Lindquist on a visit to Clare Bridge of Cary, an assisted living home. Estrada brought her dog JD, a three-legged beagle mix. Second-year CVM student Grace Oldfield made the rounds among the residents with her dog Peanut, a black lab mix, who also jumped through hoops for his audience. And Stephanie Gibson, second-year CVM student and president of the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association (SCAVMA), led Birdie, her yellow lab, as she got acquainted with the various residents who gathered to meet the dogs. The dogs also went along hallways and to some individual rooms to bring cheer to those living there.
Later that afternoon, the dogs and handlers paid a visit to Independence Village of Olde Raleigh.
“I love visiting the elderly,” Estrada said. “Watching them light up when you walk into the room with a dog is a great feeling, knowing that you helped bring some joy to them, and allowing them to just talk about their past pets and experiences gives me an amazing feeling … .
“Speaking for the students, it is a great break from school and a stress relief. For me it is also a great feeling of accomplishment when you see the progress made by the dogs when they go to a visit and behave like superstars,” she added.
“The most gratifying part of this organization is just how many lives we make a difference to,” Lindquist said. “Visiting these seniors once a week, I have seen dementia patients smile and hug a Staffordshire mix, a pound puppy who found his purpose in making others smile. I have even watched pre-veterinary students realize the power of volunteering their little amount of free time.
“And I have met with families whose parent passed away, and the happiest moment in their final days was getting the picture of a man in hospice, lying next to a graying muzzled golden retriever in a bright blue and orange [CARE ] vest. The purpose of life is to make some difference that you have lived at all, and the volunteers at CARE NC live this mission every day.”
And there’s the added reward of increasing the dogs’ chance for a home, Estrada said. “With the dogs not only are we teaching them manners and taking them out for some socialization, but we increase their adoptability as well. All of the dogs that have been through the program get adopted fairly quickly.”
In fact, said Lindquist, “There’s a 100 percent adoption rate for the CARE dogs, mainly because the SPCA does a phenomenal job of picking dogs for the programs.”
There are phenomenal positive effects all around: “Joining the CARE program helped me meet new people and form lasting friendships that greatly impacted my life and eased the anxiety of my transition [after moving to] North Carolina,” said Estrada. “This program not only does great things for the elderly and the SPCA dogs, but also greatly impacts the pre-vet students who participate in it.
“Watching the elderly every visit and watching the dogs grow every training class reinforce my appreciation for CARE, and I am extremely thankful to be a part of it,” Estrada said.
Meanwhile, Lindquist has found that “working with CARE NC throughout my undergraduate and currently during my veterinary school years has taught me many things, but the most important lesson is that this is a calling.
“This is an opportunity where I can give a second chance to a shelter dog and impact the spirit of the elderly we visit. … It’s a life with purpose, and that’s what makes this very special non-profit worth fighting for.”
She notes that since 2011, the volunteer-driven activities have helped more than 30 dogs on their way to new lives and families and have enrolled more than 50 pre-vet students as volunteers. And of course, at the assisted living facilities, there are the countless residents who have been cheered by the visits and whom the participants have had the pleasure to see and meet on a weekly basis.
Looking ahead, Lindquist said, “Our goals right now are to maintain consistent group of volunteers and pre-vet students that can continue visiting assisted living facilities. As we grow as a non-profit, we hope to reach even more assisted living facilities.”
Dr. Julianne Davis-Christ, CARE NC founder, said that the group is “always in need of community dogs to help out,” and invited those who think their dogs would enjoy visiting the elderly to contact CARE at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s an invitation to make a difference. As Linquist said, “No matter what type of day I am having, I am reminded that every single day, in every walk of life, ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”
And so can shelter dogs.
— Terri Leith