Paws to the rescueApr 25, 2019 03:29PM ● By J. Chambless
Jordan shows the card she got after reading to Duke, her favorite PAWS for People listener. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
Perhaps it’s here – as a young girl hugs a furry, four-footed listener and snuggles in to read aloud – that the magic happens. Or maybe it’s in the gleam of delight in a hospital patient’s eyes when a gentle dog strolls into the room for a friendly pat. Or maybe it’s at a nursing home, where rubbing a dog’s ears can bring back a flood of memories of the old days.
For Lynne Robinson and her staff and volunteers, the magic happens at all these places, as PAWS for People uses the instinctive bond between people and animals to make life better for everyone.
Robinson, the executive director of the non-profit group, said, “People always think pet therapy is a nice middle-aged lady with a golden retriever who goes into the hospital and everybody pets the dog. We do that, but we do a whole lot more.”
PAWS for People began in Robinson’s home, but for the past two years has been run out of an office park in Newark. The group began in 2005, when 21 teams of Newark pet owners shared their loving animals with residents in retirement homes and nursing homes, with children who were part of the Easter Seals program, and eventually children with autism, and those in drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities. The main requirement was having a friendly dog and a heart for giving, and the basic rules haven’t changed much since.
Today, there are more than 500 people who are part of 21 active teams who visit locations in four states every day. While the therapy animals are mostly dogs, there are cats and rabbits as well.
“There are 176 sites we visit on a regular basis,” Robinson said, “and we do community events that we go to when somebody requests us. We do de-stress events for companies, we go to all the college campuses for de-stress events during exam weeks. Christiana Care will call us for a special support group, like working with people who have Parkinson’s, teaching them activities they can do with their own dogs. The bulk of our visiting is by our 500 members who have a site they commit to visiting at least twice a month. We have some people who visit every day – it’s just what their schedule allows them to do.”
The community reach of PAWS for People is large, but the demand is even bigger. “I need more staff,” Robinson said. “We have to train everyone, make sure we have vet references, place the volunteers and oversee them. We stay in touch, sending them cards and inviting them to community events. All of them have questions, and they either call or stop in here at the office. There are probably 200 requests that we can’t handle because we don’t have enough teams. But we can’t have too many teams at this point because I don’t have enough people here to handle everybody.”
While the group has grown exponentially, the need outstrips the supply. Robinson said she doesn’t foresee the group going national – at least not for now. “We don’t want to take over the world, but we do want to be known as the best in the Mid-Atlantic region, which we are,” she said. “There are always people who want to do this kind of work, and it has nothing to do with the economy. People will always love their animals and they want to give back to the community. The issue is being able to promise them a good, ongoing experience with us, rather than just train them and say goodbye.”
Linking pets and those who need them is a full-time job. To get volunteers up to speed, there’s PAWS University, which offers a required series of courses that teach pet owners how to relate to a wide range of people – those with dementia or autism, those in crisis or recovery, those who may be a bit shy around animals and those who can’t wait to wrap their arms around a dog.
One of the most publicly visible programs is the PAWS for Reading read-aloud program that visits libraries and elementary schools in the region. On a Wednesday evening in late March, five volunteers and their dogs took their places in a room at the Newark Library, waiting for children to arrive.
Clarice Ritchie, the community engagement director of PAWS for People, said volunteers have been visiting the library twice a month for years. Children can read for 15-minute slots during the hour-long visit. Some of the young readers have their favorite dogs, eagerly dashing over to snuggle with tiny Peanut, huge Duke or patient poodle Lexi. Often, patting the dog and turning pages can conflict, and a hug is usually part of the experience.
At the end of their visits, children get a card with the dog’s photo and an invitation to write to the PAWS for People website. There’s also a bookmark to take home.
As the children scurried to find their reading buddies at the library, the dogs accepted all snuggles and pats, and laid down obediently as the children picked their way through picture books, often pausing to show the animals the illustrations.
While people get the most out of a visit from PAWS for People, the dogs enjoy the attention, too. At the library, the dogs laid down quietly, closing their eyes or rolling over onto their backs for a belly rub.
On the PAWS for People website, a teacher writes, “A PAWS pet therapy team visits my third grade classroom boys. They look forward to their visits! These boys have become calmer and more confident readers. Their attention span and focus is so much better! Two of the three boys increased from performance level 2 to 3, and the other went from 1 to 2. We could not be more pleased!”
Another teacher writes, “One third grade girl is Hispanic, and English is her second language. She’s often hesitant to read aloud in front of the group, but loved to read to Lillie from PAWS. As the year went on, she grew more confident of her reading.”
In a library setting, PAWS for Reading can do more than improve reading skills, according to a librarian who is quoted on the group’s website. “At the suggestion of a PAWS pet therapy team, a mom brought her 8-year-old daughter to our PAWS for Reading program. The girl, with a deep-rooted fear of dogs, sat clear across the room during the first few sessions. She gradually moved closer to Duffy, the therapy pet, and after several months, she was cuddling Duffy and had mastered her fear of all dogs. In addition to building literacy skills, PAWS helped this young girl overcome fear and anxiety – she developed courage which will help her in life.”
In a hospital or rehabilitation center, dogs can be a calming influence, or provide a warm, affectionate center in a confusing situation. PAWS dogs are used frequently in outpatient areas, such as blood labs or cancer centers, to reduce stress for young patients or those with developmental disabilities.
Most of the monetary support for running PAWS for People comes from individual donations, grants and fundraisers, although pet owners and client organizations pay membership fees to belong to the group. There is grant support from several larger companies, including Hillside Heating and Cooling, Concord Pet and Discover. By using volunteers, the program is able to expand as broadly as it has, but is always looking for ways to do more.
The program works especially well for those with autism, since dogs are judgment-free and always patient with children who might not be able to make eye contact. As with all the PAWS for People programs, volunteers must complete training before working with children with autism, ensuring that a PAWS visit will be rewarding. That human-animal bond can be crucial for experiencing one-on-one relationships.
Even if one of those involved is four-footed.
For more information, visit www.PAWSforPeople.org, or call 302-351-5622.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].