Erin Rice, Director, UCLA People-Animal Connection (PAC)

Helping the Healing Process with Animal Love

Erin Rice and Finn

Erin Rice and her Great Pyrenees/Lab mix, Finn, volunteered with PAC for several years before she became its new director in February.

What is the purpose of UCLA's People-Animal Connection?
This is a patient-focused program that started in 1994 to bring comfort, companionship and warmth to patients, their families and staff members. The hospital can be stressful and scary. Our dog-human teams bring something familiar and calming to the environment. The dogs don't care who you are or why you are here. They just love you. And unconditional love definitely adds to healing. We know from many studies done here at UCLA that animal visits increase oxytocin and oxygen levels in the blood and decrease cortisol and blood pressure. There is science to support animal-assisted therapy, but on an emotional level, when a PAC team walks into a hospital room, you can see the impact the dogs have on our patients.

What are your goals for the program?
Currently we have 70 PAC teams for Westwood and Santa Monica. I would like to add teams to the program so we can get more visits to the many people who would like them. The program is completely donation based, so it needs funding to grow and be sustained. We are planning to add some new services: the tuck-in program and a literacy program. The tuck-in program, which starts in the fall, will provide nighttime PAC visits for children and adults. The literacy program is something we are doing in partnership with Citi National Bank's "Reading is the Way Up" program for our pediatric patients. A lot of kids are in the hospital for a long time, so it's important they keep up their literacy skills. Having them read to dogs - a captive and non-judgmental audience - is a great way to motivate them. We also just produced UCLA trading cards containing the dogs' profiles and pictures to leave with patients.

How did you get involved with PAC?
I have always loved animals. I read a book called Paws and Effect about animal-assisted therapy around the time I rescued my dog, Finn, from a shelter in Van Nuys. The book mentioned Delta Society, which is now called Pet Partners, as one of the organizations that registers dogs to be therapy dogs. I started training with Finn and went through the evaluation process for him to become a therapy dog. Once we were registered, they put me in touch with UCLA People-Animal Connection and we started volunteering here in early 2009. I started filling in when the former program director went on leave and took over when he retired.

What are the characteristics of PAC dogs?
The dogs need to have a calm disposition. They have to be engaged with humans and interested in interacting with them. They have to like being petted and must not react to loud noises or distractions. They have to be okay in different hospital settings and have to be able to sit, stay and lie down. We also want to see that the dog and its human handler are bonded, that the dog really listens and that both dog and human communicate effectively with one another.

What is required of the human PAC partner?
A great deal of effort goes into being a PAC volunteer. First, you have to get your dog registered as a therapy dog, which requires taking a workshop and going through an evaluation. Then you have to work at socializing your dog in a variety of environments to make sure the dog is good in crowds. When you apply to PAC, you go through a six-to-eight-week orientation, visiting the various units to see where you and your dog are a good fit. We allow PAC teams to volunteer twice a month for two-hour sessions. The volunteer has to make sure the dog is bathed within 24 hours of a visit and that the dog's health standards are up-to-date. That includes vaccinations, fecal exams and annual veterinary check-ups. The volunteer also has to be current with his or her vaccinations and continuing education requirements.

Kunal Wahi, PAC Coordinator

Kunal Wahi and Oliver

Kunal Wahi is the Coordinator of the People-Animal Connection Program at both the Westwood and Santa Monica UCLA Hospital locations. Kunal has been working with PAC since 2015, after seeing that the PAC Program is a perfect combination for his interests in Biology and Animal Behavior, hospital volunteer work, and leadership. Additionally, like all PAC volunteers, Kunal has a love for dogs, and hopes to adopt and train one to join PAC one day.

In his time with PAC, Kunal has helped expand the program to reach beyond the hospital, to the UCLA campus and the Los Angeles community. Such programs include Stressbusters, where students are able to visit teams during and before finals week at the Powell Library, as a way to relieve stress and take a break. Kunal’s favorite PAC event is Valentine’s Day, because it “brings a surprise to everyone”, and brightens up spirits, no matter their relationship status.

Kunal’s vision for the future of PAC, is to add more programs that reach the UCLA campus. Additionally, because the PAC program is 100% donation based, Kunal strives for the program to become endowed. Kunal’s passion and dedication to the mission of the PAC Program, is a priceless contribution that leads to the program’s success. The program is forever indebted to Kunal and his endless work and contributions to the UCLA People-Animal Connection Program.

(Pictured: Kunal with PAC Dog Oliver during PAC's Annual Valentine's Day Canine Cupids Event)