A small boy speaks his first word when he calls to the therapy dog who has come to his school. A nursing home resident is overwhelmed by the affection a visiting dog shows him as the dog nestles up to him as he lies in bed.
The human animal bond has long been recognized and as dog owners and lovers of all animals know, it can work wonders, creating companionship, comfort and caring for people of all ages.
The Human Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC), founded by Colorado State University professor Dr. Ben Granger in 1993, is making it possible for specially trained dogs and their handlers to make a difference all across Colorado. A recent gift from the Avenir Foundation is allowing this needed service to expand and to increase its efforts in research and education.
As part of the School of Social Work in the College of Health and Human Services at CSU, HABIC currently has 140 volunteer teams consisting of an animal and a handler providing services to schools, assisted living, long-term care, and hospice facilities in Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Berthoud, Denver and Castle Rock. Program director Dr. Helen Holmquist Johnson is assisted by a team of six who coordinate and publicize the program. All are animal lovers devoted to the mission of the program.
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“We are growing and will soon be hiring,” Holmquist Johnson said. “We are expanding in volunteer hours in student outcomes and are seeing increased in-kind donations.”
She explains that while the requirements for becoming a therapy dog are not breed specific, that doesn’t mean that any dog will be a fit for the program. The dog must love to engage with people and be well-behaved. Two cats are currently part of the program, providing recipients with the opportunity for soothing touch which can calm emotions and slow heart rate.
Volunteer training for the animals and their handlers takes place during a seven-week program followed by a health and behavioral screening for the dog. Then the team is assigned to a facility and introduced to the staff. Visits occur weekly. Because the work is challenging for the animals, they do not work for more than an hour at a time. “We have teams that have been part of the program for as long as 10 to 15 years,” Holmquist Johnson says. “It’s not something you do on a whim.”
Therapy dogs are especially welcome in schools where children with special needs of all kinds respond to the animals. These interactions take place one-on-one with a school counselor and dog handler present. Schools report seeing increased attendance on the days when therapy dogs are scheduled to visit.
Holmquist Johnson is living her dream. She’s been in love with animals since she became involved in a 4-H project as the six-year-old owner of a yellow lab. She grew up in Fort Collins, earned a degree in psychology at the University of Wyoming in 1997 and then a masters in social work at Colorado State University. She volunteered for HABIC as a graduate student in 1998. In addition to overseeing HABIC, she is creating a curriculum for certification in the field and teaches an animal-assisted therapy and human animal bond course at CSU.
HABIC is a unique non-profit organization that would not exist without the dedication of volunteers willing to share their time and their relationship with their animals to those in need.