If Nancy Pierson sometimes has a hard time predicting her life much beyond eight or 10 hours, it's with good reason.
In a recent week, she and her golden retriever Peyton, a trained assistance dog, kept vigil with an Orinda couple during the search for their son who had taken his life at Annadel State Park; spent an afternoon supporting Kenwood Elementary School students and staff mourning the death of a 4-year-old from their preschool; and brought comfort to Rohnert Park's Evergreen Elementary School, where they were grieving the sudden loss of a second-grade teacher.
She also gave a demonstration with her dog at Forestville School and was at Sonoma State University helping to relieve end-of-semester stress.
In her unpaid role as founder and chief executive of Paws As Loving Support Assistance Dogs, or PALS, Pierson has more on her plate than most, a good portion of which lands there with little notice.
In addition to the continual demands of the dozen or so dogs who live or are being raised at her Covey Road home, she responds to crisis calls in partnership with the Sonoma County Office of Education, the Red Cross, the rape response organization Verity and other agencies. She also runs a training program for comfort and social-therapy dogs and will soon complete the nonprofit's first placement of an autism service dog.
"It's so rewarding to watch tears leave and smiles happen, you know? And the dogs do that," Pierson said. "The dogs offer this unconditional love and emotional support. They don't ask questions. They just are, and the kids — and adults, too — are so responsive to that."
Dogs can also serve as a bridge for children who may not be ready to confide their feelings, she said.
"Dogs really provide an important anchor for people in times of trauma," said Randi Francis, a physical therapist and Red Cross volunteer who recruited Pierson for the two-day Annadel search.
Studies have long indicated that petting dogs and other pets can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and offer other soothing physiological and psychological effects, Pierson said. A dog's presence can also provide distraction and diversion from trauma or grief.
When she founded PALS in November 2009, Pierson, 61, already had spent nearly two decades training and placing social therapy dogs through Bergin University of Canine Studies, formerly the Assistance Dog Institute, and Canine Companions for Independence.
She handles some crisis response calls with other volunteers, including Guerneville resident Linda Louis, who described the visit to Evergreen school and how her lab mix, Denise, went to a weeping teacher and just leaned into her, like a hug.
"The dogs, a lot of times, will go to people who need it," said Joan Hirschnitz, a Santa Rosa resident and volunteer. "They sense it ... It's kind of magical."
Heidi Fortkamp, a chaplain with the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Service, recalled being at Santa Rosa High School with Pierson last fall after the sudden death of a special education aide.
"It's an amazing thing as a human being to step back — knowing there is nothing I can do — and to see, especially kids, how they respond to these dogs," Fortkamp said.
PALS always needs help with kennel cleanup, fundraising and puppy raising. It also holds periodic training for human/canine teams to work as social therapy or comfort dogs. Tuition is $120.