By Janet McAfee

The social season is here, and animal lovers can fill their calendars with lots of events that include their 4-legged companions. On Saturday, November 26, you can enjoy the 16th Annual Dog Walk Fundraiser for  Paws and Hearts, a wonderful local charity where little paws work magic when they touch human hearts. 

Paws and Hearts was founded in 2000 by a 4-legged fellow named Lucky.  This joyful Poodle/Terrier boy always went to work with his human, Richard Waxman.  They found their calling after a chance meeting with the nursing director at Valencia Palms Nursing Center in Indio.  Lucky became a popular visitor at Valencia Palms for his remaining 12 years of life, curling up on patients’ chests to offer love and comfort.

Today dozens of volunteer teams and their dogs follow in Lucky’s paw prints, continuing his legacy of bringing comfort and healing to the sick and infirm in dozens of hospitals and assisted living centers throughout the Coachella Valley.  Animal assisted therapy involves the use of animals as a form of treatment, with the goal of improving the patient’s social, emotional, and physical health.  


Pictured here are executive director Richard Waxman’s two therapy dogs, Scruffy and Maddie, bringing loving comfort to a hospital patient.  These two precious pups visited patients at Eisenhower Hospital three times a week with Richard.  Sadly, 15-yr-old Scruffy passed away in June after bringing joy to thousands of sick and infirm humans. This year’s Dog Walk Fundraiser will be in Scruffy’s memory.    

Scientific studies confirm that contact with dogs lowers blood pressure, decreases anxiety and depression, and has a healing impact for many medical disorders.  A 2007 study demonstrated that patients in critical care after heart failure have a significant decrease in cardiopulmonary pressure and anxiety levels upon receiving animal assisted therapy. Dogs stimulate the minds of dementia patients.  For patients confined to a hospital room or assisted living center, a visit from one of these canine ambassadors may be the highlight of their day.   

What does it take to become a therapy dog?  Richard Waxman has temperament tested over a thousand dogs for his program, and only half of those have passed his evaluation.   Richard explains, “More often, the problem is the human owner.  This is not a program where you get to brag about your dog.  This is not about how cute your dog is or about its championship status. We’re looking for dogs that are outgoing and friendly. Your dog has to immediately make a friendly overture to the patient.  If you have a really good dog who likes everyone, he’s a good candidate for a therapy dog.  The folks in long term care want someone to LISTEN to them.”  The secret is the dog does most of the work, and his human is the facilitator. 

There is no formal certification required to become a therapy dog.  Every animal assisted therapy organization does their own temperament testing and training.  The relationship between the owner and the dog is key. If a dog appears reluctant during his visit with Richard, he is not likely to be a good candidate.  The dog must be at least one year old, spayed or neutered, fully vaccinated, and with its current owner for at least six months.  All breeds are welcome to apply, and large breeds such as Great Danes and Golden Retrievers participate.  Some cats have participated, but most of them don’t like to travel in cars. 

Richard explains, “You will never be more proud of your dog than when a patient tells you ‘Your dog made my day’ when he kisses their hand or takes a cookie from them.  The dogs seem to know they’ve done a good job, and bask in the experience.”  To volunteer or for more information, call (760) 836-1406.

Paws and Hearts is now starting its 17th year of service to the Coachella Valley, and relies on donations. Check their website  You can make a tax deductible donation online or send a check to Paws & Hearts, 74-854 Velie Way, Suite 7, Palm Desert, 92260. 


Registration is at 9am, the walk at The Westin Mission Hills Resort begins at 10am, 71-333 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage.  Minimum suggested donation is $25.  This is your chance to have a fun day with your dog.  Each walker receives a t-shirt, continental breakfast, and treats for their pups.  This will be a tail-waggin’ good time!