From Bay Area to Las Vegas Valley: 49ers’ viral puppy session highlights benefits of animal-assisted therapy

Charlie, a registered therapy dog for Pet Partners of Las Vegas/Love Dog Adventures, is pet during a visit with local teens. Feb. 9, 2024. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)
Charlie, a registered therapy dog for Pet Partners of Las Vegas/Love Dog Adventures, is pet during a visit with local teens. Feb. 9, 2024. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)

By Dominic Faria
Medill Reports

Little by little, they filtered in. The San Francisco 49ers had just wrapped up their final grueling day of practice before a monumental conference championship game. But as the players made their way back from the practice field, they quickly realized they had to complete one last bit of preparation. Rather than the usual film study or weight training, this task involved something much less mentally and physically demanding. In fact, all they had to do now was shut their mind off and pet some puppies. 

“(The players) just really were all melting as they walked in the room,” said Nancy Willis, vice president of strategic growth at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley. “They couldn’t put their stuff down fast enough to get to the puppies.”

For nearly two hours on Jan. 26, an entire room of the 49ers’ practice facility was transformed into one big “puppy therapy” session, featuring 11 furry friends (nine puppies and two adult dogs) from the local Humane Society chapter in nearby Milpitas. Willis and her organization were there to give the team a much-needed respite from the rigors of a long NFL season.

Though they had partnered for local community service events in the past, this was the first time the team and the nonprofit organization had collaborated to bring this kind of programming for the athletes. It was Saya Lindsay, a senior community relations manager for the 49ers, who first approached Willis with the idea.

“You’re going to play this big game, and she’s like, ‘I just want to give them some time where they can maybe get their minds off of it for just a couple of hours, where they can just think about something else,’” Willis said. “And what better (way) than puppies?”

The idea couldn’t have come at a better time.

As tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, defensive end Chase Young and others took turns cradling the rescue pups and answering questions from the Niners social media team, they could feel some of that stress, accumulating over the course of a pressure-packed playoff journey, start to recede.

“Dogs, I feel like, are one of the purest things that you can be around,” said Young, who has six dogs of his own. “So it definitely helps you. I feel like it just sets you down and just sits you back a little bit more. They’re good animals. I feel like they can help with a lot of things, mentally-wise. Relaxing, just puts you in a good state.”

Taking that time to get in the right headspace may have played a major role in the club’s historic comeback victory over the Detroit Lions just two days later. San Francisco had to dig deep to overcome a 17-point halftime deficit, setting aside any doubts or nervous energy, to punch its ticket to the Super Bowl. 

The 49ers aren’t the first sports organization to tap into the calming effects that spending time with animals can have, and they won’t be the last. The NBA’s Dallas Mavericks have Bailey, the team’s trained and registered emotional support dog. USA Gymnastics brought in therapy dogs to support the athletes competing in the national championships this past August.

But high-level athletes aren’t the only ones who experience fatigue or emotional hardship in their day-to-day lives. Overwork, illness, family trauma or an unexpected tragedy can impact anyone. And that’s where animal-assisted therapy can make a difference. It’s something that Sue Grundfest, founder and president of nonprofit Pet Partners Las Vegas/Love Dog Adventures, knows well. 

Sue Grundfest and her dog, Charlie, pose for a picture while visiting a Las Vegas hospital. Feb. 9, 2024. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)
Sue Grundfest and her dog, Charlie, pose for a picture while visiting a Las Vegas hospital on Friday. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)

“It’s mostly to be de-stressing,” she said Friday while visiting the Southern Hills Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas. “Your blood pressure lowers, your heart rate lowers. The happy hormones come out. It’s for wellness.”

A New York native, Grundfest moved to Southern Nevada 16 years ago, bringing her animal-assisted therapy organization with her. Since then, she and her team of volunteers have spun a vast, intricate web of community partnerships throughout the Las Vegas area, providing emotional support and education to a wide array of groups of all backgrounds.

Love Dog Adventures visits college students, educators, health care workers, first responders and, on occasion, professional athletes. Each of the organization’s volunteers must complete a multistep process and undergo rigorous training alongside their animals to get Grundfest’s approval and become Pet Partners therapy certified.

“My volunteers are the cross-section of Vegas,” Grundfest said. “A lot of them still work. Ninety percent  of them still work. Teachers, therapists, a school principal. I have a homicide detective. We have a retired fireman. We have a retired executive who helped build all these casinos. We have people whose names you see on buildings. But they’re volunteering with their dog. 

“It’s really wonderful that the common denominator is our pets, and that we want to volunteer.”

Although “dog” is in the organization’s name, Grundfest and her Love Dog Adventures team work with a total of nine different animal species — including cats, horses, birds and rabbits — at their sessions throughout the Las Vegas area. Most are scheduled in advance and take place at regular intervals, like Grundfest’s weekly visits with several local teen treatment centers.

It’s there where therapy dogs like Charlie, a deaf and visually impaired Shih Tzu mix, provides a calming presence for youth who have faced a plethora of challenges — from unstable family environments, to drug addiction and involvement in the justice system. The obstacles facing them are numerous, but for a few hours each week, animal-assisted therapy helps those stressors melt away.

“Support animals are very therapeutic,” said one teen, who held Charlie at a Friday evening therapy session. “Other people judge you for what you did wrong. Animals don’t.” 

Another teen, who described themself as an addict, said being around dogs like Charlie gives them “a healthy way of feeling good.”

Other visits happen in response to traumatic events, like the tragedy that unfolded just over six years ago at Mandalay Bay on the Las Vegas strip. The shooting that occurred at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Oct. 1, 2017, injured hundreds and took the lives of 58 people. It shook the city — and the nation — to its core and is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Grundfest remembers making phone calls as early as 4:30 a.m. the next day, offering her organization’s services to anyone who needed it. In total, volunteers with Love Dog Adventures, an accredited crisis response team, spent 400 hours over the following days and weeks with first responders, hospitality workers, resort performers and even members of the NHL’s Golden Knights. The hockey team opened its inaugural season just five days later, on Oct. 6.

“They (had) just moved here,” Grundfest said of the Golden Knights. “Nobody knew what was going on.”

Stephanie Gerken, founder and director of Michael’s Angel Paws, another Las Vegas-based nonprofit that specializes in dog training and animal-assisted therapy, was there in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and in the weeks that followed as well. Her organization was selected by the NFL as one of 88 Las Vegas nonprofits that will receive a part of its $1.8 million Game Day Grants award.

Emily Villarreal, from left, Dannielle Diamant and her dog, Coco, and Stephanie Gerken of Las Vegas-based Michael’s Angel Paws. Feb. 10, 2024. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)
Emily Villarreal, from left, Dannielle Diamant and her dog, Coco, and Stephanie Gerken of Las Vegas-based Michael’s Angel Paws on Friday. (Dominic Faria/MEDILL)

Their team of trained volunteers were the first on-site at the reunification center after the shooting, where they worked to support grieving families and distraught concertgoers with their trained therapy dogs.

“It was nice to be there for the community because this was grown for the community,” Gerken said Saturday morning at Michael’s Angel Paws’ facility in southern Las Vegas. She fought back tears as she recounted the harrowing experience of being with one family as they heard that their son had died. 

Gerken founded the organization in 2011 in remembrance of her late son, Michael, who died due to medical complications just a few hours after he was born. Determined to keep her son’s legacy alive, she tapped into her dog training background to launch Michael’s Angel Paws and its service dog program. Three years later, it expanded to include a therapy dog program.

“We really look for dogs that just enjoy being with people,” Gerken said. “They want to go up to people and make them feel good. Forget about whatever’s going on with the day, and just let them have 30 seconds to a minute — whatever they need — just to forget about all their worries.”

Michael’s Angel Paws has trained more than 450 volunteer teams (a dog and their owner) since 2014 and has more than 150 active teams today. Staff members regularly spend time in schools, hospitals and convention centers, serving all ages of the Las Vegas population and its many visitors. 

Dannielle Diamant and her dog, Coco, are one of those volunteer teams. Diamant, a Las Vegas native and former professional athlete, was inspired to work with Gerken’s organization in part due to the support her dog provided her during her seven years playing basketball overseas in Hungary and Israel.

“To have your dog to come home to at the end of, whether it’s a great day or not a good day — played well, didn’t play well — there’s no words to describe it,” Diamant said.

A graduate of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, a four-year standout at Northwestern and the granddaughter of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, Diamant knows first-hand the benefits animals can bring to athletes competing at all levels. Now back in her hometown, she appreciates being able to give back to the community where she was raised.

For Gerken, that’s what makes Michael’s Angel Paws so rewarding: the fact volunteers like Diamant, who has a unique background as an athlete and is well-connected to the area, are willing to work with their dogs to help make Las Vegas a better place. 

“It was the dogs that … helped me get through a tragic event,” Gerken said. “That’s what it is. It’s personal to me, because I’ve seen what the power of a dog has done to me. I look at these sports players, who have an amazing work habit with what they do. They’ve got an amazing mindset. And then you add the power of a dog there? That’s just like the trifecta of everything.”

Dominic Faria is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on X at @chefD_7.