March 30, 2023

Pets Do the Trick at Home of Guiding Hands

By Laura Nott, Live Well San Diego Support Team on behalf of Home of Guiding Hands

The buzz in the room was palpable when the tennis balls came through the door.  The fact they were attached to the legs of a walker didn’t quell the initial excitement.

The therapy dogs joyfully milling about the room at the Home of Guiding Hands were there to do a job, which was to be lovable, sweet and gentle with the intellectual and developmentally disabled residents of Home of Guiding Hands El Cajon facility.  And they were mostly perfectly behaved … until those tennis balls showed up. It was too much for Purdy, a Labrador with a reputation as a “good sitter,” to ignore.  He went straight for the ball, sniffing and pawing at it, and a few of his canine comrades joined in to investigate.

But soon, Purdy and the others pulled themselves together and went back to the business of pet therapy, spreading their wares among the 150 long-term residential clients at Home of Guiding Hands Verbeck Headquarters. The “Pizza and Pets” event, featuring therapy dogs from Love on a Leash, was held in early March in recognition of National Disability Awareness Month. 

“Here at HGH, we provide services from infancy to the end of life,” said Ashley Morey, development specialist. “This is just really a way for clients to come together and have a day when they are able to play with dogs and be themselves. It’s really great for them to pet and snuggle with the dogs.”

A Rare Opportunity

“Please Pet Me,” read the tag on Gigi’s harness. It was a key message because the clients have very few chances to interact with animals. 

“When they are out in public, they are not allowed to interact with dogs due to liability reasons,” said Kaye Turpin, vice president of development and marketing at Home of Guiding Hands. “This day was special for our residents as they have limited to no interactions with dogs. Thanks to Love On A Leash, our residents had an important and meaningful experience.”

One particularly enthusiastic man in a wheelchair let out two, deep heartfelt, “Awwwwwws,” as Harley, a shepherd mix, licked his hands.

A man nearby was greeting Honey, a small terrier. “She’s a good girl,” he said with a smile as he stroked her chin.

A golden retriever, Champ, appeared to be playing dead as his back was stroked over and over, eyes shut, dog limbs akimbo.

And then there was the dog standing in the middle of everything, just looking around and wagging his tail at full tilt. Clearly, the dogs were enjoying the attention, too.

Gia the golden retriever did a big stretch down to the floor and was corrected by her handler to stand up for the blind woman who was approaching, who lingered to pat her head again and again.

One young woman had a hard time moving on from her favorite pup, another Lab. She hugged him, told him how she felt about him, and hugged him some more. “I love this dog,” she said.


See Home of Guiding Hands Pizza and Pets participants enjoying some rare time with therapy dogs.


What’s more, it was also a therapy session for the Love on a Leash handlers. 

“I volunteer because it’s helping me, and also helping other people,” said volunteer Miyuki Molly, who had a small lab at the end of her leash.  

“People love to see dogs,” said Kim Mueller, who had brought her dog, Nala. “They love that connection. It’s really gratifying to be able to give them some time with the dogs. It seems to relax them. Even the staff, when I go to a hospital, the nursing staff sees the dogs and they go from being all stressed out to whew. It just takes the stress right out of them.” 

Pets Do the Trick

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, is a guided interaction between a person and a friendly pet. It has been proven to be extremely beneficial for intellectually disabled adults. 

review study found that pet therapy provides a range of benefits for both physical and mental health. Pets have the ability to relieve anxiety, stress and give comfort. This is particularly important for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults, who often feel these emotions more intensely. Interacting with animals helps them feel more confident, happy, and relaxed.

At the Pizza and Pets event, Victoria Winschell said she had been afraid of entering the large gathering. “I was really stressed and called my care person over. She helped me meet a dog and then I felt really good.”

For the fluffy poodle mix, licking Winschell’s cheek in exchange for pets and a hug, it was clear the feeling was mutual.

About Home of Guiding Hands

Home of Guiding Hands is a nonprofit organization that provides services, trainings, and advocacy to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome and autism. Providing services in San Diego County for 55 years, Home of Guiding Hands is one of the largest providers of support services in San Diego and Imperial counties. In addition to its premier 24-hour residential care, Home of Guiding Hands offers a wide array of services including respite services, early childhood programs, transportation, and even adoption services. If you are interested in fostering an adult with special needs, visit

About Love on a Leash

Love on a Leash is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an avenue for volunteer pet therapy teams to engage in meaningful and productive animal-assisted therapy. Find a chapter near you.

Photo: Julia, left, and Victoria enjoy the pups.