A Dog’s Healing Touch


 

Through Hand in Paw, volunteers and their pets bring joy and empathy into situations where people need it most.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

When Margaret Stinnett’s youngest son, Trey, was in a special-needs program in elementary school, he came home one day excited to tell her about a dog from Hand in Paw that came to visit his class. Stinnett wasn’t familiar with Hand in Paw—which trains volunteer teams of pets and pet owners to visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings where they can provide comfort and serve therapeutic roles—and she was curious. She called her son’s school to ask if she could observe the next time a Hand in Paw team came.

“I stood outside the door to watch the visit,” Stinnett remembers, “and there was my son, who is usually afraid of dogs out in public, really interacting with this dog, whose name is Boo. What the kids were learning was empathy, trying to understand how the dog might be feeling, and learning to ask if it was okay to pet Boo. Boo would even listen to them practice their reading. I could see the interaction was a very positive experience.”

Stinnett was so enthusiastic about what she saw that when she later learned that Hand in Paw was searching for a new executive director, “I ran straight for it,” she says. Though she loved her former job as executive director of the Birmingham Boys Choir, this felt like her new calling. “I knew I wanted to be part of this, and it has exceeded every expectation that I had.”

From its founding as a 501(c)(3) organization in 1996, Hand in Paw has grown to 120 pet-and-owner volunteer teams visiting 114 different facilities, from schools to hospitals, assisted living centers, domestic-violence shelters, and more. The amount of training and preparation the volunteers do in order to qualify and prepare for therapy visits is impressive. Each animal (most are dogs, but cats and a handful of other animals also participate) must have completed an obedience training class led by a certified trainer and then undergo screening by Hand in Paw’s resident dog trainer, Vicki Shay, who visits with the dog to observe its disposition. Owners and dogs also take part in additional training courses at Hand in Paw—including introducing dogs to a simulated hospital room, which Hand in Paw was able to create at its brand-new facility in Avondale with the help of Children’s of Alabama, which donated real hospital equipment including a bed, monitors, even the hand sanitizers they use. “So when our teams are training to go into hospital rooms, they can take a dog into that room, and they are aware of the smells and noises and all those situations that for a dog might be completely foreign,” Stinnett says.

Eventually dog-owner teams graduate to supervised therapy visits out in the community until they are ready for outings on their own. “The volunteers are the heart and soul of this organization,” Stinnett says. “They are so dedicated, and they put an incredible amount of time into the training and preparation and all the things they have to do to be able to go out. Then once they’re out in these facilities, they are really giving the gift of our service to the community.”

The Lives They Touch

Therapy teams serve in a wide variety of settings, and their roles range from providing a welcome distraction for someone experiencing loneliness or distress to participating in programs designed for at-risk teens and preteens, where kids may be more willing to open up about their emotions in the presence of a loving animal.

But out in the community, Hand in Paw might best be known for the roles therapy teams perform in the area of healthcare. Therapy teams visit patients and family members at cancer centers, domestic-violence shelters, substance abuse treatment centers, and anywhere people may be suffering from physical or emotional distress. “The public is so grateful to have this really warm, calming presence come in,” Stinnett says. “Even though they’re going through serious medical situations, there’s something about the happiness of seeing the dog and the way it affects not just the patients but the medical staff. The doctors and nurses really look forward to Hand in Paw visits, because it’s a part of their day when they can just pet a dog and meet a volunteer who is there for nothing but to help people feel better.” In other cases, dogs may play an active role in a patient’s physical or behavioral therapy, whether it’s a patient being encouraged to get up and walk because they have a dog to walk alongside, or a victim of abuse hugging a therapy animal and moving closer to regaining trust.

Stinnett says the impact these animals and their owners make is valuable in ways seen and unseen. “I think (people) don’t know how effective the therapy is. It’s more than just seeing a dog in a place where you may be experiencing something difficult in your life like being in the hospital.

“There are studies that show (animal therapy) is very effective in helping people who are in pain after regular visits with dogs,” she continues. “They don’t need as much pain medication, and it can improve their heart rate and their blood pressure. In other cases, it combats the loneliness and the isolation that you can feel in a hospital setting or in an assisted living place. It can reduce anxiety and fear for anyone.”

For at least one woman, a visit from a therapy team turned into a life-changing experience. “Her career had been doing equine therapy with horses,” Stinnett recalls. “She was very sad, because breast cancer had caused her to retire from her work. But when a Hand in Paw therapy team came in to visit her, she not only received the comfort of the visit, in that moment she saw her future. She made up her mind to get well, get a dog and get him trained, and become a therapy team. She knew that would be the kind of work she would find a lot of joy and fulfillment in. She did get well, and now she’s a volunteer coordinator in the Tuscaloosa area.

“So the experience of therapy was really like one door closed for her but another door opened at a really important time in her life.”

Dogs as Ambassadors

Hand in Paw has been around since 1996 and enjoyed an upward trajectory of community interest and service from day one, but Stinnett says it’s now growing faster than ever. In the new building, they’re able to hold information sessions and workshops for volunteers as well as educate staff from hospitals and other facilities about what Hand in Paw does, which helps build awareness.

Meanwhile, the dogs themselves help spread the word by showing up in places people don’t expect them. Stinnett says one dog in particular has near-celebrity status at Children’s of Alabama. “Saben is a great big Harlequin Great Dane,” she says, “and her owner always talks about how when they walk through Children’s, people always stop her to ask what they’re doing. And a lot of times after those visits we get calls from individual people who want to know more about becoming a therapy team or suggest other places we could visit where people might benefit. It’s like the community gets pulled in immediately when they understand what we do.” Stinnett adds that Hand in Paw now has a waiting list of 75 facilities hoping to get on the Hand in Paw volunteer circuit, so they are always working to recruit more volunteers.

Stinnett understands why interest continues to swell. Just as she experienced the joy of seeing her son enjoy positive interaction with a Hand in Paw dog for the first time at school, Stinnett believes others are pleasantly surprised to see the impact these dogs have in so many different situations.

“Dogs have a great capacity for understanding what people need, and they want to help,” she says. “I believe they see into the soul.” 

Hand in Paw Founder Beth Franklin and Emma

 

Brittany Jennings and Chester

Ashley Foster and Allie

Lisa McNair

Carol Speed and Nikki

Vikki Shay and Freddie

 

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