What has four eyes, six legs and one tail? The answer is a PAWS for People team, which comprises a human volunteer and his or her loving, affectionate dog, cat or rabbit. Together, they provide pet therapy by offering individualized visits to anyone who might benefit from seeing and petting a sweet, well-behaved, well-groomed therapy animal.
"Pet therapy is a simple, inexpensive treatment that works in a host of settings," said Lynne Robinson, founder and executive director of PAWS, citing studies that show pet visits offer numerous physical, mental and emotional benefits. These include lowering blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health, and boosting endorphins, as well as improving mood, lifting depression, and lessening stress and anxiety.
The recipients may be undergoing the hard work of physical therapy, struggling to read a book or waiting for test results in a hospital bed. "Many times, a gentle paw placed in a lap, the persistent lean against a knee, or a cuddle in bed with a sweet, adoring pet is enough to change a day, brighten some sadness, and give hope where there was none," Robinson said. "PAWS pets do what all pets do – they make us feel better."
In Sussex County, there are 68 PAWS teams who visit 20 sites, typically making two visits a month and spending an hour or two at their chosen site.
Gloria Knittle, a retired travel agent in Ocean View, has been a PAWS member for more than five years with her two rescue dogs – 9-year-old terrier mixes Bo and Bea. They participate in the PAWS for Reading program at local libraries and the Phillip C. Showell Elementary School in Selbyville. They have also visited staff, adult patients and those in waiting rooms at Beebe Healthcare in Lewes. In the spring and summer, they go to Justin's Beach House, a respite home in Bethany Beach for families dealing with cancer. Recently they have started working with preschoolers at the Indian River School District Early Learning Center in Selbyville through the PAWS Pre-Kindergarten Program.
"Pet therapy is so valuable – to see the joy and comfort it brings to everybody is wonderful," Knittle said. "It's instant stress relief to bring a happy dog wagging into a waiting room, a classroom or a nurses' station."
Knittle said she has loved her time with PAWS, not only doing the volunteer work but also meeting the other volunteers and interacting with the staff. "The staff is great about giving us specific training for each program, and they're so supportive and helpful," she said. "When we first started, it was a bumpy road as I was finding my way, but I knew that I could always call or visit PAWS, and the staff would assist me and be reassuring."
Clarice Ritchie, PAWS community engagement director, said, “Anyone with a gentle, affectionate pet that they would like to share with others should go to our website and apply to be a volunteer and find our training schedule.”
Training classes are held in Lewes, Milton, Millsboro and other towns.
The next local training sessions for potential pet therapy teams will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, March 2, and Saturday, March 16, at the Tunnell Cancer Center on Route 24, Rehoboth.
“No matter what cause or issue you are passionate about – cancer, autism, working with children, working with elders, helping people with disabilities – there’s a PAWS program wherever your heart lies,” said Ritchie.
Later this year, PAWS plans to publish a book with stories about its teams and programs.
For more information or to register, go to www.pawsforpeople.org.