MID-CITY — The Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital welcomed approximately 15 canines and their human companions into its wards for the first time Tuesday to spread holiday cheer among patients with Christmas carols and a little unconditional love.

Dogs as small as Gracie the Chihuahua and as giant as Bosley, a 150-pound great Pyrenees, paraded through the halls of the fourth and fifth floors and the Emergency Room festooned with holiday finery as the carolers belted out classics like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Deck the Halls.”

The dogs and their owners are part of the People-Animal Connection (PAC) program at UCLA, which strives to match up hospital patients with highly-trained therapy animals for short visits proven to relieve stress and improve a patient’s quality of life.

PAC is responsible for over 85,000 visits in the UCLA system since 1994.

Dogs have visited UCLA’s Santa Monica campus in twice-monthly sessions, but never for the holiday caroling event, which takes place each year at the Ronald Reagan campus in Westwood.

It’s been hard to get enough volunteers together to carol at both hospitals, mostly because of traffic issues, said Jack Barron, the PAC program director and former volunteer.

“It’ll happen in Santa Monica as long as I’m director here,” he said.

It’s a fun time for volunteers like Jane Tomlinson and her black lab Paco, because the dogs don’t get to interact often with their therapy colleagues.

“If you see another dog in the hall, you’re supposed to turn around and walk away,” Tomlinson said.

More importantly, patients forced to wait out the holidays in the hospital for any number of reasons get a little much-needed joy when the dogs come to visit, Barron said.

“Lots of us have dogs at home, and they’re our therapy dogs,” Barron said. “You walk out the door for five minutes and it’s like you’ve been gone for two years, there’s nothing like it.”

The program, which has over 50 dog-owner teams, tries to bring that feeling to patients by allowing animals trained and certified by the Delta Foundation to come into hospitals and other facilities to visit.

The Delta Foundation is a nonprofit that specializes in training human-canine partnerships to be good therapy animals, tolerant of the noises, smells and conditions of a busy hospital.

That means a four to five month training regimen, either at home or in sessions with Delta trainers, and then a skills test, which can take multiple attempts to pass.

There are also skills needed that can’t be taught.

“Not all dogs and not all people are right for this,” Barron said. “It’s about how they react to patients, and how they see patients. After 12 years of this, you really see that.”

The effort is worth it, both for the patients and the volunteers.

Studies on animal-assisted therapy show that patients receive multiple health benefits from even 12 minutes with a dog, including reduced blood pressure and harmful hormones.

Anxiety dropped 24 percent for participants who were visited by a dog-human team, according to a study abstract published by the American Heart Association.

In many ways, the act of bringing that relief can be as helpful to the volunteer as to the patient, Barron said.

Barron and his golden retriever Joey volunteered with the PAC program for three years before Barron became the director in 2002.

They worked with liver and heart patients, people whose illnesses trapped them in the hospital long-term, but perked up at the sight of Joey walking up to their sickbed.

“You ask anybody here and they’ll say it changed their lives,” Barron said.

Linda Rich has volunteered with PAC for 14 years, most recently with her golden retriever, Abby.

You don’t stay with something that long unless it’s worthwhile, she said.

“There’s no downside to this. You bring a little normal into an abnormal situation,” Rich said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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