Nancy Pierson and her indispensable team of volunteers lift spirits and lower stress whenever they show up with their canine partners from Paws As Loving Support Assistance Dogs.
They were at Riebli Elementary School earlier this month when students returned to class for the first time since fires destroyed more than a quarter of the 460 students’ homes.
They provide comfort in the courtroom, greet anxious travelers at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, aid children with autism, Down syndrome or other special needs, and bring cheer to those who could benefit from a nudge and some unconditional love.
As founder, president and chief executive officer of the Forestville-based nonprofit PALS, Pierson leads a compassionate brigade that showcases the bond between people and animals, specifically dogs.
Teams make scheduled visits to hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, convalescent homes, libraries, and acute care and rehabilitation centers. They also respond to various emergencies and work with the Sonoma County School Crisis Response and Recovery System of Support that aids students and staff during times of trauma.
Rebekah Pope, a social worker with the Sonoma County Office of Education who coordinates the SOS program, said there is “something magical” that happens when PALS dogs interact with students.
“They have this unconditional acceptance and love that kids can sense,” she said. “They’re very straightforward and less complicated than people. By nature, they love people and kids.”
She recalls one boy with emotional difficulties developing a bond with a PALS dog “that he couldn’t have with adults or other students.”
The specially trained dogs, from a 3-pound Chihuahua to an English mastiff weighing more than 160 pounds, welcome gentle hugs and petting and provide calming support and a sense of understanding, no matter the setting or circumstance.
“Dogs can sense and smell things we can’t,” Pierson said. “They’re so intuitive, they feel with their entire being.”
Pierson has countless stories of PALS dogs providing comfort, support and healing — some in miraculous ways.
She witnessed a dog steadfastly remain at the side of a hospice patient with just days to live and watched a comatose 18-year-old college student with a traumatic brain injury respond when Pierson told the woman she was visiting with a dog with “ears that are just like velvet.”
The dog, Pierson’s late golden retriever, Peyton, was sitting at the woman’s bedside in the intensive care unit of a local hospital when the young animal lover moved her head and opened her eyes.
That was Pierson’s first experience “seeing the impact service dogs make in people’s lives” and it had a monumental influence on her.
Since establishing PALS from her rural Forestville home in late 2009, Pierson has worked with numerous agencies and individuals reaching out for the kind of assistance only four-legged companions can provide. (Three-legged as well; two PALS dogs are missing a leg.)
“They’re just soft and fuzzy and they don’t ask anything of you,” she said of PALS dogs. “They’re just there. People respond to them.”
Pierson, a grandmother in her 60s, had some 20 years of experience working with Sonoma County-based service dog agencies before founding PALS. She recognized the growing need to breed, train and place dogs assisting children and adults in numerous capacities.
“It’s my love, it’s my passion, it’s my retirement,” she said. “It’s just totally fulfilling my dream. I thought it would never happen.”
PALS is the only organization in Northern California that trains and certifies dog teams to respond to tragedies, disasters, deaths, funerals, memorial services and life celebrations.
Today the all-volunteer organization has 84 active volunteers, including 70 working with dogs. There are 62 social therapy dog teams, 24 comfort dog teams, and 33 reading dog teams that visit schools and libraries.
Pierson donates her time, finding great satisfaction in her work. She considers her fellow volunteers and their dogs among the “unsung heroes” of Sonoma County.
“Sometimes I feel guilty. I feel like I get more out of it than I was able to give,” she said, her mellow partner Alexis, an 8-year-old golden retriever, at her side.
PALS volunteers assisted the community during the aftermath of the October firestorms, with 42 teams traveling across the region to visit evacuation centers, schools, police and fire departments, and camps where first responders were based.
Two volunteer teams lost their homes during the fires, with others evacuated. Despite the devastation within the group, PALS was quick to reach out wherever needed.
“We were like the second responders,” Pierson said. “We hit the ground running, day three of the fires.”
Helping people cope with disasters is just one way PALS assists those in Sonoma County and beyond. Although teams “will pretty much go where we can,” volunteers pay their own transportation and lodging. Funds from grants, donations or fees from training classes go toward insurance, veterinary bills and related expenses.
Pierson said volunteers “love their community, love their dogs and want to share them.” That might include engaging incarcerated youth at Juvenile Hall or visiting a high school or college campus during finals to help relieve students’ stress and anxiety.
Nearly two years ago, PALS introduced a courthouse dog to calm witnesses and victims of violent crimes. Stressed-out attorneys also benefit from the presence of Miranda, a specialized facility dog that spends her days in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and making trips to the courthouse.
The 3-year-old black lab calms nerves and provides comfort “and all of a sudden (victims and witnesses) become brave,” Pierson said. Miranda has been such an asset that a second dog is completing training to serve at the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office.
Although Pierson and fellow volunteers sometimes deal with heartache and tragedy, she said there is great satisfaction in helping others and sharing the special bond between people and dogs.
She emphasizes volunteers aren’t the only ones impacted by people’s state of mind.
“Dogs absorb all of these emotions and when they come home, they just crash,” Pierson said.
Yet, she said, when a lonely veteran is boosted by a visit from a PALS team, or when those touched by tragedy can receive relief by hugging a dog and releasing some grief, the sense of satisfaction is enormous.
“It’s not like it’s all doom and gloom for us,” Pierson said. “Seeing the mini-miracles the dogs help to create is amazing.”
Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at email@example.com.