On Oct. 12, students in Cindy Voreyer’s class at Washington Open Elementary School met their monthly canine visitors from Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services. Four dogs — Hope, Millie, Penny and Jack — came to the kindergarten classroom. For about an hour, the students gently petted the dogs, read aloud to them from their handmade books and mingled with the dog owners.
One of the dog owners was Julie Smiley, volunteer team captain with Furry Friends and Santa Clara resident. Smiley has been volunteering for 10 years with Furry Friends. Hope, Smiley’s 11-year-old dog, is an Anatolian Shepherd Shar Pei Mix who seemed to grin when interacting with the children.
“The exposure to animals helps children at this age to get comfortable around animals and not develop fear patterns,” Smiley said. “It inspires children to read with a non-judgmental audience. Animals know internally what the kids need when they’re here. At Furry Friends, the dogs here are our own personal pets. Before an animal becomes a Furry Friend, they get tested for temperament, behavior, how well they interact with humans and how they handle stress. There’s a checklist the vet has to go through and a checklist for behavioral testing.”
Smiley described the bonds that form between the children and dogs as joyful and magical experiences.
“I have so many stories of kids showing initial fear when meeting the dogs and then quickly overcoming this fear through their time spent with the dogs,” Smiley said. “At the first preschool I volunteered at in Sunnyvale, we had a little girl who hated books. After our very first visit, her mom picked her up after school and the girl asked to go straight to the library. She told her mom she needed to learn to read before the dogs came back next month.”
“This is my sixth year doing Furry Friends in my kindergarten classroom,” Voreyer said. “This activity helps the kids practice reading with the books they made. If they’re afraid of dogs, it gives them confidence. Two years ago, I had a student who was bitten by a dog at home. When she found out about Furry Friends, she was very hesitant. So her mom, Julie and I supported her through the Furry Friends visits. Within a few months, she felt confident enough to read to and pet the dogs. So her fear of dogs became nonexistent.”
The website of Furry Friends states: “The Furry Friends mission is to consistently facilitate delivery of the love and affection of our volunteers and their pets.” Furry Friends, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, provides visits to a number of sites, including hospitals, nursing homes, youth facilities, schools and libraries.
Visit www.furryfriends.org to learn about the other animals that members of this organization can bring for visits, the benefits of pet therapy, how to become a volunteer and how to become a visit site.