Volumes have been written about the wide range of moving, often transformative effects that interactions with a gentle, affectionate dog and its handler can have on those in need of pet therapy. Much less has been recorded about the depth of impact that those same interactions have on the dog-handler teams who provide such services.
A new volume of stories – 23 in all – aims to tell those tales. “Healers: The Deeper Impact of Pet Therapy” shares just how profoundly the work of pet therapy teams touches others.
Author Lynne Robinson, who founded Newark’s PAWS for People 15 years ago and has been its volunteer executive director ever since, said that a book was always part of the nonprofit organization’s strategic plan. But she wanted “Healers” to be “very different” from a typical dog book.
“What I wanted to do was get behind the therapy teams, that person and the animal, and find out who the team was, why they got involved with pet therapy, why they joined PAWS, why they’ve stayed with PAWS, why they take the very special time they have together as owner and pet and spend it volunteering with people in need and what they get out of it,” Robinson said.
“The tagline, ‘The Deeper Impact of Pet Therapy,’ is the most important part because it’s about the other side of volunteering. You’re still giving to the community, but you’re working as a team, and you get closer with your animal and get to meet people and have conversations and go places you never would. Because the pet is the bridge, giving you the opportunity to make those visits and have those experiences,” she said.
Robinson founded PAWS for People after she volunteered for another pet therapy program with her 112-pound rescue golden retriever, Boo Radley, who the former high school English teacher named after a character in the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” How this work affected her, Boo and their relationship – along with the overwhelming need she saw for such services – inspired her to create PAWS.
“Boo was just a really amazing dog,” she said. “I watched what he did and sort of followed him. He taught me really everything that I know about pet therapy.”
Robinson launched PAWS from the basement of her home with 21 teams and 10 visitation sites. Today, PAWS has 13 paid staff members and more than 650 certified volunteer therapy teams. The teams visit more than 200 hospitals, eldercare facilities, rehabilitation centers, courthouses, schools, libraries and other sites throughout Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Thousands of people who have a range of physical, emotional and mental health issues and needs are served through two-dozen specialized PAWS programs each year.
“Our mission statement calls for serving adults, children and folks with disabilities,” Robinson noted. “In the very, very beginning, we started visiting with assisted living and Easterseals, then later added kids.”
A plaque memorializing Boo features his portrait and hangs in the PAWS office and training center located on Dawson Drive in the Delaware Industrial Park. The same photograph – taken by a Christiana Hospital nurse during a therapy visit – is the cover shot for “Healers,” and his and Robinson’s story serves as the book’s introduction. Each of the chapters that follow focuses on one PAWS program, one team that works within that program and the effects their experiences have had on them. Accompanying photos illustrate the relationship between the person and the dog making up each team.
“I had a team member, way early in PAWS’ life, who said to me, ‘I don’t think I’m doing this right because I think I’m getting more out of it than the people we’re visiting are,’” Robinson recalled. “But I said, ‘No, you’re doing a great job. That’s exactly right.’”
“Healers: The Deeper Impact of Pet Therapy” by Lynne Robinson and Rachel Brown is available for $19.99 and may be ordered online or by telephone. Visit pawsforpeople.org and click on “Get PAWS’ New Book!” or call 302-351-5622.