Love, One Paw At A Time

Researchers say that people live longer, happier and healthier lives with animal companions. Sharlene Lauretz noticed this when her autistic daughter's development improved with the other therapy residents while playing and interacting with their family dogs.

This propelled her to start the Love On 4 Paws program, where caring volunteers share their dogs for animal-assisted therapy at schools with special needs students, nursing homes, children's hospitals and rehabilitation teams.

Now run by Suni Cookson, Love On 4 Paws is a tax-exempt, charitable organization made up of around 135 dogs ranging from five to 150 pounds. With a rigorous entry program, the dogs go through a certification process that not only tests their physical capabilities, but also their mental states and personalities.

"Only around one in 100 will make it through our certification process as we make sure the dogs are well behaved, have health clearance from their veterinarians, have updated vaccinations and can pass our obedience and training classes," said Janie Prentiss, a six-year volunteer for the program.

One of the many places the program visits is the Shriners Hospital for Children, where it is obvious to see how happy these loving animals are making the kids. With a souvenir Polaroid, these young patients forgot about their injuries while generous volunteers shared their dogs.

With her black Labrador Suki, Sarah Jeffers commented, "It's a tough job when you see hurt and sick kids, but when their faces light up as they see the dogs, it makes it all worth it."