This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

After Hours: A professor and her therapy dog

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In this latest installment of “After Hours” — a series about faculty and staff who balance their work lives with fascinating hobbies or side jobs — meet UCLA history professor Margaret Jacob and her beloved dog, Blizzard. Both volunteer their time to bring comfort to patients through the People Animal Connection (PAC) program.

Name: Margaret Jacob

Day job: UCLA professor of history

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History professor Margaret Jacob and her collie, Blizzard.
But after hours: PAC volunteer with her dog, Blizzard

What is PAC?: The UCLA People-Animal Connection (PAC) is one of the most comprehensive Animal-Assisted Therapy and Activity programs in the nation. PAC volunteer teams — consisting of canines and their human partners — offer companionship and emotional support to more than 900 critically ill children and adults per month. Since its inception in 1994, PAC teams have recorded more than 100,000 in-patient visits, as well as hundreds of thousands of unrecorded visits to families and guests at UCLA medical centers and community events.

Why PAC?: Jacob first heard about the PAC program “since coming to UCLA or from another dog lover in the park or something,” she said, laughing. Jacob knew immediately that it was something she wanted to be a part of. She did not hesitate getting her now 4-year-old collie, Blizzard, involved because her “previous collie, Riley, was involved, and that went really well ... Collies have a wonderful temperament, and I really wanted to share that.”

Becoming a PAC dog: The PAC program requires that all of its canine volunteers be at least 18 months old to qualify. Each dog must pass a three-hour test conducted by the Pet Partners organization. Test-givers make sure the dogs know how to obey basic commands, with or without their owners present. They also play out different scenarios — such as a patient falling — to see how the dogs will respond. “I brought in a trainer to train him and also to train me to train him. I tried to train him when he was a pup for half an hour every day,” Jacob said. “You really have to keep after it so he knows you’re in charge.” Blizzard passed the test and is now a full-fledged volunteer of the program. “He is so obedient in the hospital. Somehow the animals know they are in a formal setting.”

Blizzard.cropped'A walking Clark Gable': The program requires that all dogs be groomed before going on their visits. Since it is not healthy for dogs’ skin to be groomed too often, Jacob takes Blizzard to the hospital twice a month. She accompanies Blizzard on all his visits and stays with him the whole time. At the hospital, Blizzard is “inherently friendly. I help him on the bed,” she said. “Sometimes he will lick hands and toes.” She brings treats for Blizzard and allows the children to give him the treats as well. According to Jacob, “Blizzard feels like the center of attention, a walking Clark Gable” when he is at the hospital, since everyone from doctors, nurses, orderlies, patients and visiting families are constantly petting him and wanting to take pictures with him.

Soothing away stress: Aside from the lobby’s slippery marble floor, which Blizzard hates, he is incredibly comfortable in the hospital. When it comes to patients, Jacob said their reactions vary. “Some people don’t want to see the dog. Some children go completely nuts.” Jacob chaperones Blizzard all over the hospital. “I always make a point to visit the waiting room, because people are stressed out or bored or anxious, and seeing a dog makes a difference,” she said. “Up on the psych wards, he is terrific. They talk about their own animals, and people smile a lot.”

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With her mother by her side, Riley Holland takes a good long look at Blizzard as he makes the rounds at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
A special memory: “There was this little boy who had his head cut open for some kind of brain operation. He was lying there, out of it, and he looked vaguely at the dog. Blizzard got up on the bed and all of a sudden, the little boy became very animated. He leaned over and put his head on the dog’s head and just lay there. It was very sweet.”

Blizzard’s future: Jacob plans to keep Blizzard in the PAC program until he is 10 years old. Afterwards, she plans to take him to a different setting, such as a hospice. “Dogs tend to get stiff with age,” she said. She will evaluate how Blizzard is doing once he is older to see what will be best for him.

Fitting it all in: For Jacob, being a PAC volunteer allows her to enjoy something outside of her professorial duties. “Most of the time I am teaching, writing books or going to committee meetings. So it’s a real treat to get to do something different,” she said. The PAC program gives Jacob and Blizzard an opportunity to help ailing children and to lighten up a place that can seem very dismal to some. “The program is superb,” Jacob said. “It’s actually a lot of fun.”
 
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To read more stories in our "After Hours" series about faculty and staff who balance their work lives with side projects or fascinating hobbies, go here.
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