- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - It’s an unseasonably warm March afternoon at Brandon Woods at Alvamar retirement community, and resident Marion Counts, 79, is in his room doling out snacks to a pair of hungry dogs.

Brahma, a 6-month-old Boxer and the more outgoing of the two, is the first to receive his prize. His sister, Shakti, at almost three years old, is a little more patient. The blue pit bull, a certified therapy dog, remains curled up under Counts‘ feet and calmly waits her turn.

“You’re going to make him fat, Marion,” says Raven Rajani, founder and director of Loving Paws Animal Assisted Therapy.

“Fat and happy,” Counts retorts with a smile, offering up another treat to the puppy.

Brahma and Shakti, along with their owner Rajani, are some of Counts‘ most frequent visitors at Brandon Woods. The retired businessman suffers from Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and a rare heart condition. Once an avid outdoorsman, these days Counts spends more time at the hospital than outside hunting or fishing.

He misses being active, Rajani says, and he misses having a dog.

The healing power of animals

That’s where Loving Paws comes in. The nonprofit provides therapy services across Douglas County, including regular trips to Brandon Woods, Kansas University residence halls and the Lawrence Cancer Center, as well as in-home private visits.

Loving Paws consists of 12 dog-and-owner volunteer teams and boasts a variety of breeds, ranging from muts to pit bulls to Labradoodles. Each team goes through a certification process under the supervision of professional trainers before joining the group. The program offers open-to-the-public training sessions, the first of which took place in January.

Rajani, who also owns Lucky Paws Bakery in downtown Lawrence, founded the nonprofit in August.

“We can learn a lot from dogs. They don’t sit and ponder and worry and stew,” Rajani says. “They’re just present. They are open and they embrace the moment.”

Research shows there are numerous health benefits to the visits, too. Rajani says interacting with animals reduces blood pressure, anxiety, stress and depression. And a recent University of Missouri study found that just a few minutes of stroking a dog causes a release of feel-good hormones including serotonin, oxytocin and prolactin.

Rajani, who is pursuing her master’s degree in clinical social work at KU, says her program offers a unique brand of healing to people like Counts. Loving Paws specializes in animal-assisted therapy, which is designed with specific goals in mind for each client.

“For example, if someone that I was seeing in Brandon Woods had a stroke and they started to recover and they’re having mobility issues, say, with their right arm, we can create exercises that incorporate Shakti,” she says. “It could be something like stroking the dog or throwing a ball for her. It engages them with the animal.”

Through sickness and in health

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