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He’s man’s best friend " and heel-er

Mary Engel
Los Angeles Times
Vail, CO Colorado
Ken Hively/Los Angeles TimesChildren hug and pet Archie at Casa Pacifica in Camarillo, Calif.
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The toddlers spot him the instant he steps out of his office. They swarm him like bees, shouting his name:

“Archie! Archie! Archie!”

He drops to the ground, eye-level with 3-year-olds. They lean into him, hug him, climb on him.

At Casa Pacifica, a Ventura County, Calif., oasis for abused, neglected and emotionally disturbed children, patience and calm aren’t just virtues; they’re job requirements. Archie has worked at the leafy campus in Camarillo, Calif., for two years, and he doesn’t flinch when small hands pull his ears and wandering fingers poke his nostrils.

Instead, he bestows slobbery kisses with a pink tongue as large as a hand towel.

“Yucky!” the kids squeal, hugging the 165-pound dog all the harder.

Archie ” who looks like an extra-fuzzy black bear but is actually a Newfoundland ” was Vicki Murphy’s idea.

Her boss, Steven Elson, a psychologist and Casa Pacifica’s executive director, was initially skeptical of so-called therapy dogs.

But Murphy, 51, Casa Pacifica’s director of operations and development, had watched dogs work magic with children before. A former private school teacher, she once raised a puppy in her classroom.

The second-graders took turns walking Rudy, a Labrador retriever, and learned not to rock their chairs on his paws or tail. If dogs could teach privileged children about responsibility and nurturing, Murphy mused, maybe they could help kids whose human role models had failed them utterly.

Operated by a public-private partnership, Casa Pacifica looks more like an upscale camp than a shelter for youngsters who sometimes arrive with gashes and broken bones.

It has 45 beds for emergency placements: infants through 18-year-olds rescued from abusive or negligent households in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. They stay an average of two months before returning to their families or being placed with relatives or in foster homes.

Some children are initially frightened of Archie. They quickly get over it.

“When we see really large creatures, we tend at first to be taken aback,” said Howard Miller, a Casa Pacifica therapist. “But Archie is a very lovable-looking and acting dog. Immediately the kids sense someone who is warm and cuddly. Being near him gives them a great sense of security.”

Wired teenagers walk out their frustrations next to Archie. Lonely adolescents sit beside him on the green lawn, arms draped across his broad back. Kids who are having trouble in school practice reading aloud to him, choosing from a library of books about Newfies.

A toddler who was 11 months old when she arrived at Casa Pacifica spoke her first word there: “Archie.”

Dog people don’t need proof that a wagging tail can salvage even the worst day. But researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center have actually quantified the therapeutic value.

A study presented at the American Heart Association’s 2005 scientific conference monitored heart and lung function and stress hormones in 76 heart failure patients randomly assigned to one of three groups. In the group visited by a dog, anxiety levels dropped 24 percent, compared with a 10 percent drop in patients visited by a human volunteer and no drop in those with no visitor.


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