Want to see a sad child smile, a hyperactive child sit calmly and an inattentive child riveted with singular focus? Come visit The New School in the Heights when Faithful Paws’ pet “therapists” are on campus. Once a week throughout our Summer Program, ten eager pet volunteers (and their owners) were welcomed by our students and teachers. Encouraged by the fictitious McCreery and Breaker and how they helped Benny in ALMOST PERFECT, we were eager to try an organized approach.
Animal assisted therapy is a scientifically proven form of therapy that is recognized as therapeutic and recreational. While many similar organizations throughout the country offer volunteer services to children and adults, we were fortunate to partner with FAITHFUL PAWS PET THERAPY PROGRAM, sponsored by Bellaire United Methodist Church. Founded in 1977, they currently have about 300 certified human-pet teams and visit about 85 facilities. All are volunteers who must pass the Canine Good Citizen test for dogs or Temperament testing for cats, rabbits and other small animals. Pets must be current on all vaccinations and have a report completed by their vet.
But are the visits truly “therapeutic,” or are they just brief periods of respite for kids who love animals anyway? Let’s see.
“Gwen” is a petite, dark haired girl with big glasses over eyes frequently filled with tears. At first, she wanted to visit with “Puffy”, the small, white fluff ball eager to show off her tricks to the children, but the minute Gwen was introduced to Puffy, the girl headed for the door. With gentle encouragement, her teacher urged her to stay. She danced back and forth from one foot to the other, signaling her ambivalence with her whole body. After about ten minutes, she needed to leave for real. That was Week #1. By Week #2, it was a whole different story. Bringing her new friend who had just enrolled in the school by the hand, she skipped into the room eager to show off her acquaintance with Puffy. Her previous timidity had been tucked away. Although it returned again when Gwen was invited to try something new she hadn’t tried before, Puffy had helped her make one tiny step forward in mastering new situations.
On the surface, Trevor is the complete opposite of Gwen. He approaches new situations with a lot of boasting. In this case, he knew everything there was to know about all kinds of dogs, especially ones like “Rex,” a Shepherd mix. When it actually came time to meet Rex, Trevor signaled to the teacher and his counselor how fearful he actually was by putting his face too close to Rex’s mouth and asking to see where he pooped. When Trevor’s teacher suggested he visit with “Puffy” instead, his anxiety vanished along with his difficult behavior. Later, he and his counselor were able to talk about using his words when he becomes frightened.