Kathie Meier shares her experience as an animal assistance volunteer in Marin county, bringing animals and kids together in that perfect synergy that you have to experience firsthand to truly understand.
Pair together an undying love for dogs and the desire to help and make a difference, and you have the perfect combination for animal assisted therapy. I thought my interest was limited to visiting seniors, that is until I was introduced to the Marin Humane Society Education and SHARE programs which involve work with children, and outreach into the schools and community. It has been very exciting and rewarding to be part of these programs for the past 15 years.
The Playing It Safe with Dogs and 5 Senses programs are the mainstay K-3 grade level humane education programs. We make a 10 minute presentation and provide time for each child to meet Holly or Charlotte and practice the skills we have taught them.
Interactive programs use hands on obedience exercises involving the children and visiting canine to teach kindness, compassion, and humane treatment of our animals in a variety of local programs working with troubled and at risk youth.
It is a very empowering lesson to these children to realize that they can achieve the desired result (a sit or a down, for example) with a gentle command and praise – the very same message they are learning about their own human-to-human relationships. Just this week we visited three classes at St. Vincent’s School for Boys. It was heartwarming to see these boys, for whom every aspect of life is so challenging, down on the floor like marshmallows responding to Charlotte’s love and kisses.
Gretl and I visited many special education classrooms with all levels of disability, and whether the children were unpacking toys from her backpack, and learning zippers and snaps in the process, simply petting her and running their fingers through her fur, or walking her around the classroom and having her sit and wave, it was clear that her presence had a positive impact on these children.
Gretl and I visited the CCU at Marin General Hospital for 4 years, and for many of the patients who had pets at home, the visits provided a most welcome respite from the stress and worry of a hospitalization. Last year, I ran into the wife of someone we had visited several years before, and although I didn’t recognize her at first, she remembered Gretl by name, and told me how much the visit had meant to her husband, and how often they had talked about Gretl since then.
Share a Book
The SHARE A BOOK program began in January, 2005 and Kristie, Gretl, Holly, and now Charlotte have all been an integral part. We visit the reading lab in one of our local elementary schools for 4 hours every other Thursday, and read with many of the 60+ children in the program. The children love reading to the dogs, and will often stay in at the start of recess to finish a story.
MHS has also paired us with individual children who need additional help reading. Holly and I recently completed our third year of reading with a wonderful 4th grader who progressed from a reluctant, struggling reader to one who reads fluently and loves it. At our last visit she read the biography of Albert Einstein; and translated her own (Holly’s) interpretation of his famous formula E=MC2 to Energy=MuchoCookies2.
Each week she would bring several books and have Holly choose the book by putting them on the floor and having Holly “touch” the book she wished to have read to her. We have also worked with a 5th grader who read well below grade level. In both instances, Holly played an integral role in the progress of these children. Holly’s presence promotes a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere that helps to reduce their reading anxiety, and leaves them better able to focus on what they are reading. And they love the fact that they have “helped” Holly to become a better reading dog. It is a win-win situation for the children and Holly. We begin next week with a new child and her task will be to “train” 6 month old Charlotte as a reading dog.
Just like dog treats, animal assisted therapy comes in many sizes and flavors – I have highlighted the areas we have worked in, but there are also many opportunities involving physical and occupational therapy settings, bereavement counseling, and dogs accompanying children to court.
If you are interested in additional information and resources you are welcome to contact me directly or visit the websites of several well established AAT organizations: www.therapet.org, www.tdi-dog.org, www.deltasociety.org, www.therapydogs.com. Your local Humane Society may also have an AAT program.
Have you been looking for that special fulfillment that comes from volunteering and helping others? If so, I encourage you to consider animal assisted therapy. It is a gift that never stops giving, and, best of all, we can do with our dogs.
Holly and Charlotte