National pet therapy nonprofit’s local chapter looks to grow membership to serve more Central Coast residents

From listening to kids read to visiting seniors in bed care, Kelli the liver-spotted Dalmatian has provided a lot of joy on the Central Coast. 

“She loves everybody. When we work with kids, she will lay down while the kids climb all over her,” said Toni Perez, Kelli’s owner and handler. “I adopted her when she was 3, and she was doing pet therapy within a month because she was a natural at it. She’s very calm and sweet.” 

click to enlarge National pet therapy nonprofit’s local chapter looks to grow membership to serve more Central Coast residents
Photo courtesy of Toni Perez
ALL THE LOVIN’: Love on a Leash Central Coast chapter dogs will visit schools throughout Santa Barbara and SLO counties to give students time to pet the dogs or read to them as part of pet therapy.

Perez and Kelli visit local schools and senior care facilities through Love on a Leash, a national nonprofit organization based in San Diego that has chapters all over the U.S.—including on the Central Coast, Perez said. 

Love on a Leash’s Central Coast Chapter formed in 2016 after the kennel club stopped providing pet therapy opportunities, but several members wanted to continue the work, she said. Now the local chapter’s 11 members bring their dogs to Solvang, Santa Maria, Lompoc, Nipomo, and Arroyo Grande schools and senior care facilities, and they hope to add more members to expand their reach across the Central Coast.

“It’s not easy to find new members, but we would love to expand. We’re pretty limited now because of our small size,” Perez said. 

All Love on a Leash dogs are certified and go through basic obedience training. The animals are later tested to make sure they can be approached by humans and touched, she said. Once they pass initial evaluations by someone in Love on a Leash, they have to log 10 hours of supervised visits and then they can go on visits with their handler. 

“You’re making these people happy for a few moments; you can’t help but respond positively. It makes me feel good, too,” Perez said. 

The Central Coast Chapter started with monthly visits in senior care facilities, which mainly consisted of bedside visits where the dogs are within arm’s reach for seniors to pet, she said. 

Over the years, the chapter has partnered with the Santa Maria Library to provide a “read with a dog” program for preschoolers, and also plans monthly visits with Lompoc high and middle schools and regular visits with several Santa Maria elementary and middle schools. 

“With kids it’s more hands-on. It’s a lot of petting, holding, reading to them. The kids get a great deal out of it. The dogs are very calm and quiet and just allow these kids to pet them and read to them and they will just lay there and listen,” Perez said. 

In Orcutt, Love on a Leash will also visit during lunch time and on the playground. They’ve visited special education classrooms across the Central Coast and brought the dogs into school libraries to help students who are having a difficult time in school and need extra support, she added. 

“You see these kids and they light up. They’ll tell the dog they’ve had a tough day, or in one case last year one child started crying because her mother had passed away recently and she was holding and hugging [the dog],” Perez said. “I think that we provide a unique service that no one else does, and that is really rewarding for us, rewarding for those we serve.”

Love on a Leash services are free for any community member or organization to access. Visit for more information. Email [email protected] with questions or for more information on becoming a Love on a Leash member. 


• The Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture recently announced 11 local artists who have been recognized as California Arts Council Artist Fellows. Funded by the California Arts Council, the program is designed to uplift and celebrate the excellence of California artists, to recognize the centrality of artists’ leadership in guiding the evolution of traditional and contemporary cultures, and to elevate their capacity for continued contribution. In addition to statewide recognition, the artists will receive prizes between $5,000 and $50,000. Artist Fellows from Santa Barbara County hail from diverse geographies and represent a range of artistic practices, including writing, filmmaking, music, visual arts, and social practice. The fellowships are designed to support artists of all disciplines at key career stages—emerging, established, and legacy. Emerging Fellows from Santa Barbara County include Adrienne De Guevara, Spenser Jaimes, Cheri Owen, Tai Rodrig, Tama Takahashi, and Kai Tilley. Jack Forinash, Debra Herrick, Jennifer Reinish, and Emma Trelles were awarded Established Artist Fellowships.

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].

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