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Animal Assisted Therapy - A Personal Essay

Many experiences have led me to this point in my life where I now have the opportunity to become involved with animal assisted activities. Yet, at the same time, looking back over the past 2 years to where I began, it is though circumstances presented themselves in a synchronized order of which I was unaware. I for one believe in events happening for a reason, and many times we have no idea why they do so.

This is my experience with animal assisted activities.

Having grown up with always having a cat or dog in our household, pets were a part of our family. I remember the only time I saw my Dad cry was at the death of our family cocker spaniel. I guess I thought everybody had a pet, as they were a part of growing up for all children. To this day, I can't imagine a household without some form of a pet. My career as a school library media specialist has been one I truly enjoy. Starting my experience in public school education, as a teacher's assistant with special needs students, I have run the gambit from kindergarten to high school, and now to an alternative middle school.

My rescued black Lab Shyanne, is actually the reason I looked into animal assisted therapy. It was her laid back demeanor, kind hearted face, and willingness to please that encouraged me to research available options in our community where we could give something back to others. We joined WAGS (Wonderful Animals Giving Support), an affiliate of the Delta Society. One obedience course later, passing the CGC, and we were on our way. Shyanne was a natural, and I finally had found my niche in life. Shyanne began her career as a Pet Partners Team member, by going to my school with me 4 days a week. I had read extensively on the topic of animal assisted therapy, and found that there was documentation on the positive effects of dogs and at-risk students. So off we went. Luckily, I had the support of an open-minded administration, which encouraged us, and gave me the opportunity to try something totally new in the educational environment. I located the Intermountain Therapy Dogs organization on the Internet, and learned about their program R.E.A.D (Reading Education Assistance Dogs). Since we were already Delta members, we completed the requirements for Intermountain and joined as R.E.A.D team members. I developed a supplemental reading program called 'PAWS TO READ' (based on the R.E.A.D model). The middle school students I work with are in an alternative education environment, as a result of behavior problems and issues with gangs, violence and crime. Often well below their grade level in the area of reading, I was determined to find someway to encourage the desire to develop their reading abilities. After months of research and reading, I decided to promote my program to the faculty, staff and students. The idea behind PAWS, is that students can and want to relate to an animal, in this case my lab, Shyanne. From this genuine and human relationship to a canine, the student can read to the best of their ability without stress, fear or embarrassment. As they relax and develop confidence in their reading abilities, the physiological benefits of being with an animal, aid in positive emotional and behavioral changes as well.

So now for the past year and a half, Shyanne and I have been going to my school four days a week, and volunteering at four facilities a month in the evenings with WAGS. Our experiences are truly rewarding, and we love what we do. The people we meet are like a second family, and we look forward to each visit. Our WAGS organization meets monthly, and we are very involved with the functions of the group. The tasks we do are considered animal assisted activities since they are not part of a goal directed prescribed therapy plan, and are not carried out by a health/human service provider.

My immediate goals include developing and preparing a curriculum for teaching classes in Humane Education/Media Literacy, along with my PAWS reading program. I also plan to continue my visits with WAGS, as I become more involved in the organization. My future long-term goals include acquiring additional knowledge in the area of animal assisted therapy, and to develop a program for other schools based on this most beneficial method of therapy.

Written by Rhonda Durham