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Taylorsville Journal

Pet therapy: A scratch behind the ears for humans

Sep 11, 2023 02:49PM ● By Ella Joy Olsen

Sometimes it feels like a dog’s life

If you’re lonely or stressed there’s nothing like having someone to lean on, who will listen without judgement to what’s been getting you down, someone who doesn’t give unsolicited or unhelpful advice, someone who doesn’t care if you are sick, or old or anxious.

Now what if this someone was also cute and soft and they met you in the place where you needed them the most, say at school just before a big exam or in the hospital when you’re not feeling so great?

An Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI), or more familiarly pet therapy, can provide that special someone for humans who could use a “scratch behind the ears.” Utah Pet Partners is a local nonprofit provider of pet therapy and is dedicated to improving human health and well-being, in partnership with therapy animals. 

“These sweet dogs help release anxiety during exam week,” said Heather Panek, the dean of nursing at Arizona College of Nursing in Murray, where therapy pets visit on a monthly basis to ease the stress of test taking. “There’s nothing more beneficial for our students than a laugh, a snuggle, and a moment or two with no worries.” 

Where to get some puppy love 

Utah Pet Partners collaborates with about 100 volunteer teams (pet and owner). Teams are often deployed to Primary Children’s Hospital and other hospitals around the state, local veterans homes, and memory care and assisted living facilities. At times they are summoned for crisis response and suicide prevention at mental health facilities.

There is empirical evidence that therapy animals reduce anxiety, improve healing time, and increase motivation for accomplishing difficult tasks (among many other positive outcomes). “Dekker knows just when people need to feel supported and when they need to be leaned into,” said Whitney Stewart, Pet Partners human volunteer, and owner of Dekker, a black standard poodle. “He doesn’t shy away.” 

Therapy animals are frequent visitors to elementary schools, where their presence has proven benefits on emergent readers. When a child has someone to read out loud to, someone who will endlessly listen and not judge as they sound out words, they are willing to try harder and read longer, improving comprehension, test scores, and most importantly the love of reading. 

One local volunteer team, Rumble (and his human companion Megan Stewart), have weekly visits at Brookhaven Elementary, where the fourth-grade class has named themselves Rumble’s Readers and eagerly look forward to his attention. 

Teams typically visit for about an hour to 90 minutes. There is no charge for a visit, as the organization is donation and volunteer based. However, for-profit companies will be asked for a donation. The visits are not intended for entertainment or novelty, they are therapeutic.

Purrrrfect Partner - Qualifications of a Volunteer team

About 90% of therapy animals are dogs, but many animals are eligible to volunteer in a pet team varying from cats to birds to llamas (no wild or exotic animals like iguanas).  

“There is a handler course and an in-person evaluation each team must pass,” said Melany Hillstead, executive director of Utah Pet Partners. “We need to know how the pet will respond if they are hugged, or petted by people with limited mobility, and how they will respond in a stressful situation or in a crowd.”

The national Pet Partners organization provides the teams with professional handler training, support and mentoring, careful team assessment, and they have a commitment to animal welfare. Once the team passes the tests and a health examination, and becomes a registered Pet Partner team, they will be available for visits. Insurance is provided and the location of the visit is vetted for safety of the volunteers.

Treats for good behavior

The best reward for volunteering with Utah Pet Partners is the pleasure of helping others and in sharing the love of a good animal. But the organization also provides an annual volunteer appreciation picnic. This year it was held at Wheeler Farm and included dinner, a prize drawing, and games and treats for the pets. A doggone good time was had by all. 

To inquire about a Pet Partner visit or to volunteer, visit utahpetpartners.orgλ

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