Why paws and whiskers can be the best therapy for people in need of TLC.
It was Christmas 1994 when Scarlet Ross and her 10-year-old son went to get photos of their cat and dog with Santa.
Getting a dog — let alone a cat — to cooperate for such a photo op might be tough.
Not for these pets. Neither one seemed fazed by being held by a bearded stranger in a bright red suit.
Scarlet's dog, Tyler, with Santa. Image via Scarlet Ross, used with permission.
Amazedby their calmness, someone approached Scarlet and asked her if she would be interested in getting her animals involved with a new animal therapy group: the Human Animal Bond (HAB).
After all, the stranger explained, if her animals were so even-tempered with Santa, they’d probably make great therapy animals.
Scarlet was immediately intrigued.
She decided to leave the cat at home, but she took her sheltie to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to see if he was a good fit. He passed with flying colors, and "That’s just how I got involved," she says. She remains a volunteer with HAB to this day.
Scarlet and Tyler visiting a nursing home resident 20 years ago. Image via Scarlet Ross, used with permission.
The volunteer-run organization was started by the U.S. Military Veterinary Services because they know how strong the bond between humans and animals can be.
The military veterinary services "felt that animals had a particular benefit to army families because of all the moving," explains Ruie Gibson, a long-time HAB board member and volunteer.
Snickers, a greyhound HAB therapy dog, at HAB's annual picnic. Image by Tammy Patton, used with permission.
Not to be confused with service dogs, therapy dogs can provide comfort and support to those who need it. And there is science to back it up.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors have used, and continue to use, therapy dogs with patients because they have found they can help reduce feelings of depression.
Studies have also shown that simply petting dogs can help lower people’s heart rates and reduce stress and anxiety.
The military wrote a regulation, and the animal therapy group Human Animal Bond was born to help provide this service to those in need of comfort and support.
Families that are interested in being a part of HAB can sign up their dogs, cats, and even rabbits to be therapy pets.
HAB volunteer Erika Chester and her cat, Mia. Image via HAB, used with permission.
If these animals pass the temperament test, they can join the HAB network with their family.
"I would say that 99% of the time, the people who come to us and who want to do this, or think that their pet would be good at this, pass the temperament test no problem," Ruie says. "They wouldn’t even consider it if they didn’t think their dog would like it."
Once they’re members, the families take a special training session once a year — which, Ruie says, is actually more for the owners than the dogs.
After that, the volunteers and their therapy pets sign up for and attend as many HAB events as they can with their schedules.
Two volunteers and their HAB therapy dogs at the annual Veterans Day Parade. Image via HAB, used with permission.
Sometimes the HAB therapy pets go to schools and libraries to meet students.
They even help kids who are having trouble reading practice doing it aloud.
Cobalt, a beagle mix, visits a teacher and her classroom in Leavenworth. Image via HAB, used with permission.
Other times, the pets visit nursing homes, elderly care facilities, or rehab facilities.
Goose, an HAB therapy dog, visiting a rehab facility. Image via HAB, used with permission.
They also go to a minimum security correctional facility on the military base to visit nonviolent offenders.
"That’s a very popular program," Ruie says, adding that there is always a waiting list of inmates wanting to see the dogs.
Scarlet has now been an active volunteer with HAB for the last 23 years and has had several of her dogs join the program.
"It is very important to me," she says. "It’s very rewarding to see the joy of it."
"A couple of years ago, I had a dog that was blind, deaf, and incontinent, and we would go to the nursing home and talk about that," Scarlet remembers.
Scarlet's dog Aunt Bea was a regular visitor at the local nursing home. Image via Scarlet Ross, used with permission.
This dog, named Aunt Bea, was 12 or 13 when Scarlet adopted her, and she was also missing her teeth. When she went to the nursing home to visit, Aunt Bea "had to wear her Depends," Scarlet continues, but "many of the residents related to her health condition. ... They really enjoyed meeting her."
Today, Scarlet's two dogs — a rescued golden retriever named Josie and a wild-haired shih tzu named Phyllis Diller — are both in the program.
Scarlet and Josie, an HAB therapy dog. Image via Scarlet Ross, used with permission.
"I love sharing my animals with these people that have had animals in the past and can’t have them now," she says. "They get to hug them, they pet them, and I take photos of them with my pet and give it to them so they can have it."
That's why she particularly loves visiting the nursing homes with her dogs.
Tyler with a nursing home resident at Christmas. Image via Scarlet Ross, used with permission.
"So many need a special touch or hug that they used to get," she says.
Being involved with HAB has also helped make Scarlet feel closer to her animals too.
"I love all of my dogs, however, with my therapy dogs there is a special bond and closeness," she explains. "When you work with them like that, that’s a special connection."
Scarlet's shih tzu, Phyllis Diller, is also a hit at senior facilities because her crazy hair makes them laugh. Image via Scarlet Ross, used with permission.
Whether it's visiting the elderly or helping kids practice reading, it's clear that HAB has been making a difference in people’s lives.
All animal lovers understand the joy their pets can bring. But sharing that joy is a step beyond.
HAB therapy dogs and member families at their 2017 annual picnic. Image via Tammy Patton, used with permission.
All it takes is one visit at a school or nursing home to know your therapy dog is making a difference, Ruie says. "Sometimes they might not even want to touch the dog, but just being in the presence, it’s amazing what a difference it can make."
HAB dog Zorro and Maj. D. Thomas at the Munson Army Health Center. Image via HAB, used with permission.
"You might not know that it raises someone’s mood right away, but after you talk to a nurse, you find out that this patient hadn’t talked all day until they saw the dog."
"It’s amazing the things that do happen in their presence," she adds, "I don’t know how long it stays that way, but at least for a short time, they feel better."
If you think your pet would make a good therapy pet and you live in the Fort Leavenworth area, check out their website for ways to get involved as a volunteer.