Heads turn when Maxx, a 120-pound mound of white fluff, proudly displaying a yellow bandana, lumbers down the hall at the St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center. Maxx is serving as the canine partner of a certified Therapy Animal Team. Today, the Great Pyrenees makes himself comfortable in the hallway until his human, Maureen Mullaly, says it’s time to visit another patient.
Meanwhile, hospital visitors and medical staff passing by take a moment to send a smile in his direction, pat his head, or if he is really lucky, give a vigorous belly scratch. You can see the tension start to lift away as their faces light up with a smile. Such is the job of a therapy animal – to enjoy the company of people from all walks of life, while helping to brighten their day.
Maxx and Maureen are one of 35 therapy teams that conduct regular visits to schools, nursing homes, hospitals, libraries and community outreach programs through Pet Partners of Syracuse. Those they visit are often stressed or depressed, but experience a sense of comfort and decrease in their anxiety levels when interacting with a visiting dog or cat.
Co-founder Susan Gilberti and the other therapy teams witness the power their dogs and cats have during each visit. She describes it as an emotional experience.
“When you enter a room or a hallway with an animal, there’s an instant smile on anyone who looks at you,” she said. “People just feel better right away.”
Animals like Maxx, who is a rescue dog, love it too.
“He is immediately down on the floor, rolling over and looking for belly rubs,” said Maureen. “He loves it and I’m glad that we can give back to the community this way. It’s really amazing.”
The benefits of this program haven’t gone unnoticed. Although Susan Gilberti watched the organization grow substantially since co-founding it in 2005, she finds it difficult to fulfill the need.
“We are receiving more requests than we can handle from facilities that want our teams to come,” she said. “We want to get more teams involved so that we could help more people.”
A Community Foundation grant assisted Pet Partners with the cost of technology that is now used to conduct recruiting presentations. Already, the effort has helped bring on and train three new teams but the group is aiming for many more. The greatest need is for volunteers who can visit schools during the day to assist with reading programs.
Pet Partners works with the national R.E.A.D.® program to bring animals into schools to serve as reading companions. Dogs and cats are ideal for this role because they help the children relax, knowing the animals will not judge or criticize them. The children build self-confidence along with their reading and communications skills.
Volunteer Mary recalled a time when she witnessed the benefit of the reading program when she brought her English Setter, Lucy, to a bookmobile visit in Oswego.
Four-year-old twin boys visited the bookmobile with their mother. They spoke to each other in Russian, struggling to adapt to English as their second language. Mary noticed that they did not speak to the mobile staff or her at all, but when they saw Lucy, they became very animated and talked to her like she was a person.
“‘Lucy! Lucy! Look at this. Look at the dinosaur.’ They would say while showing her a book,” Mary recalled. “And then the most remarkable thing happened. They read to Lucy in English. They came every week and always spoke only to the dog and only in English.”
Lucy enjoys the visits, too.
“She loves to go,” said Mary. “All I have to do is put my badge on and immediately she knows we are going out to meet people. Her warm personality makes it easy for people to approach her and she loves the attention.”
Before becoming a certified Therapy Animal Team, volunteers and their animals must complete a training workshop and pass an evaluation that determines what situations might be best for them to volunteer in. Each team is reevaluated every two years so that the facilities they visit can have the peace of mind that each team will be calm, professional and helpful.
Therapy dogs like Maxx and Lucy don’t likely realize the positive impact they are making while enjoying the company of so many people during their visits. Whether they are helping a child to read, visiting a lonely resident in a nursing home or hospital, or de-stressing a college student during finals week, they are lifting spirits one belly rub at a time.
Susan hopes that others with people-friendly animals will consider joining their effort.
“Just think of how much we could increase the vitality and overall quality of life for people in the communities we serve with each new therapy team we add in Central New York.”