Saturday, April 21, 2012

Animal Assisted Therapy Program HSBC

Pet Power…Therapy Animals (Just the Right Medicine)

Marni BellaviaManager, Animal Assisted Therapy Program Humane Society of Broward County

The Animal Assisted Therapy program uses volunteers and their companion animals to provide social therapy to comfort children and adults with special needs or those experiencing life’s stresses. The benefit of using pets is that animals, in general, and companion animals more commonly, are regarded by many as “man’s best friend.” Animals provide people with unconditional love and non-judgmental acceptance and companionship. They serve as catalysts for social interaction and as bridges to interpersonal communication and attachment. It’s no wonder people love their pets so much!

When our program was first established, it served the elderly residents of nursing homes in Broward County. Today, our program is well known in Broward, Dade and Palm Beach counties and we have expanded to help the abused, neglected, physically and mentally ill people of all ages and genders. Our program includes teams that visit over 100 facilities such as senior retirement homes, hospitals, hospice, mental health facilities, children’s facilities, foster homes and group homes along with Broward County Public Schools and Broward County Public Libraries.

The use of animal therapy to assist people with special needs is not a new concept. There is increasing evidence and statistics that show that the emotional and psychological benefits of pet companionship have physiological counterparts as well. Pets improve not only the intangible “quality of life” but also improve human heath. There have been many studies documenting that petting and caring for animals, particularly those with whom a bonded relationship has been established, can reduce blood pressure, slow heart rate, and improve survival rates from heart disease. Animal Assisted Therapy is being used in a wide variety of settings to help people with acute and chronic illnesses. Let’s take a look at some our wonderful Therapy Programs.

Wags & Tales Reading Program

The Wags & Tales Reading (W&T) Program is a research based reading motivation program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. The scope of the program is to demonstrate how certified Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) dogs and their handlers can be instrumental in improving the literacy skills of children in an effective, unique, and most importantly, fun manner.

The premise of the W&T program is that children will find reading to an animal less intimidating, a special time for them that is helpful and fun and will create a positive environment in which learning is facilitated. Certified AAT dogs and their handlers visit students at selected schools and libraries to help strengthen reading skills.

In the year 2000, the W&T program began in just one library in Broward County and has now been expanded to include 24 libraries across the county as well as several Broward County Schools. It is estimated that approximately 1,000 children each year are reached through our reading program with our library partnership and an estimated 150 or more children with our school partnership.

This program encourages children to read out loud, improve their literacy skills in a non-judgmental fashion which promotes learning. Each time a child sits down to read to one of our therapy dogs, the response is overwhelming. The children feel this special time with the dog provides them with the motivation to become better readers.

Each certified therapy team receives specialized training prior to placement in the program. The volunteer / dog team must take a series of classes, including specialized training classes, in order to be considered for certification in this program.

Hospital Visits
Our AAT teams visit patients in almost every hospital in Broward County. We visit various floors to bring the joy of our pets to those who are ill or recovering in the hospital. One of our participating hospitals, Coral Springs Medical Center, has seven AAT teams that visit their pediatric ward. The AAT teams stop by the patients’ rooms and help to reduce the stress and anxiety of the children. Many times when the children need to have blood drawn, the dogs are right there beside them so they can pet the dog and have a distraction while their blood is being taken. The interactions between the dogs and the patients are remarkable. Janice Zack, Certified Child Life Specialist says, “We see this time and time again with the patients. Pets reduce stress, lift spirits, and promote healing in a comforting way.”

Our volunteers and companion animals visit their assigned facility and give those residents and patients an opportunity to pet the animal, learn about the proper way to care for a pet, socialize with one another and tell loving stories about their beloved animal friends. AAT visits can be as basic as “meet and greet” or as structured as working on specific goals with individuals under the supervision of a trained staff member. The type of visit depends on the need of the facility.

Currently, we have over 100 dogs, 4 cats and one bird certified in our AAT program. So, you want to be a volunteer? Here’s what you need to know.

You and your companion animal must meet the following minimum requirements in order to be considered for this program:
• Handlers must be at least 18 years old
• Handlers must have owned their animal for a minimum of one year
• Animals must be one year or older to participate
• Animals must be spayed or neutered
• Animals must be current on vaccinations
• Animals must be non-aggressive in all situations towards humans and other animals
• Animals must be social, friendly and interested in people
• Animals must be well-behaved (i.e., walks well on a leash without pulling, doesn't jump up, adheres to basic obedience commands such as sit, down, stay, come and heel)

If you are not already a volunteer, you will first need to attend the Humane Society of Broward County’s Volunteer Orientation. Volunteer Orientation is scheduled through our Volunteer Services Department at 954.266.6814.

Once you have completed the Volunteer Orientation, you will be required to attend a 2 ½ hour AAT introductory class without your animal. This class will teach you all about our Animal Assisted Therapy Program and what skill requirements both you and your animal must possess in order to be considered for our program.

After the AAT course is completed, you and your animal might require further training. Training is determined by the type of program you and your animal will be participating in, and what skill sets you and your animal have or need to have in order to participate. AAT Obedience Training classes are held at the Humane Society and are scheduled once a week for 6 weeks. The Manager of the AAT program will decide if you and your animal require further training before being evaluated for the program.

If further training is not required, you will be scheduled for your evaluation. The meeting, inclusive of the evaluation, will take approximately 1 ½ hours. Evaluations are conducted at the Humane Society.

Volunteers will need to provide a copy of their animal’s updated veterinarian records showing all vaccinations have been administered at the time of the training class and/or the evaluation.

If you have multiple pets, the requirement is one pet per handler. You may have multiple pets evaluated and, if they pass, you will be required to bring only one pet per visit. You may rotate your pets as necessary. If you have multiple pets and more than one handler, each pet and handler may be evaluated separately for the program.

Currently, the certification fee for this program is either $80.00 or $100.00 depending upon which option best fits your needs. The certification fee covers the cost of the materials and equipment you will need as a volunteer in this program. The certification fee is tax deductible and non-refundable.

If you are interested in joining our AAT program, please contact the Humane Society directly at 954.266.6856 or email us at

There are other organizations such at the Delta Society and Therapy Dogs, Inc. that are national. 

Posted by: Mary Gardner, DVM
Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In Home Euthanasia

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