Animals are more than just family pets. They can function as therapists and companions for children and adults with special needs. Local and national organizations provide a framework of professionalism for handlers and their animals. Here are samples of programs serving the Treasure Valley.
Miniature Horses Make Magical Moments
Mini Joys, Inc.
Imagine receiving a visit from horses less than three feet tall, wearing black and white high-top tennis shoes so they don’t slip on indoor floors. (The shoes come from the Build-A-Bear store.) Levi and Spunky are miniature horses, or “minis,” and are not ponies. Bred small, the minis are built like a tiny horse.
“Minis are by nature very gentle and compassionate animals,” says Laurie Bell, executive director of Mini Joys, Inc. Laurie and her husband Ken take their two miniature horses to early childhood centers, Head Start programs, nursing homes, veterans’ hospitals, and schools for children with special needs.
Incorporated in March 2009, Mini Joys is a mobile program bringing humans and minis together. Laurie says the program’s goal is to “Promote joy, hope, and healing to those facing physical, mental, or emotional challenges.” During a horse/human interaction, children and adults visit with the small horses, petting and brushing them.
She describes her miniature horses as lovingly patient, tolerating up to two hours of visiting with groups of children. Laurie says the minis have an innate sweet nature, love the attention, and know they are visiting to provide a joyful experience.
Plans include seeking corporate sponsorship and broadening visitations to children with various disabilities and illnesses. She also plans on working closely with therapists and their clients.
Equine Therapy Equalizes Opportunities
Ride For Joy Therapeutic
Horseback Riding Program
Horses named Chester, Cowboy, Jazzy, Diamond Bo, Shadow, and Stretch work at the equine therapy program Ride for Joy, where children with disabilities take horseback riding lessons with the help of dedicated volunteers. The program has served more than 100 individuals since it started in 2007. Ride for Joy is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (narha.org).
Valerie James, the executive director for Ride for Joy says, “Our program made a really important transition this year.” In June, they moved from their leased outdoor arena in Eagle to a leased indoor/outdoor arena at Pierce Park Stables in Boise. The new indoor arena enables them to conduct lessons during inclement weather.
The current focus is on children ages 4 to 19 with cognitive and physical disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, brain injury, and other conditions. Horseback riding assists children in increasing muscular strength, flexibility, communication skills, and self-esteem. Children who use wheelchairs can participate without their chair, getting exercise or physical therapy.
Enrollment involves parents and their child completing an application. The program’s registered nurse determines if the program is a good fit. Riding instructors create individualized lessons for each child, and toys and games make lessons fun and interesting.
Volunteers are a critical part of the program and more than 200 people have given over 4,000 hours at Ride for Joy. Each lesson requires two side walkers offering verbal and physical support when needed, a horse leader, and a certified horse therapist.
Each child’s weekly lesson lasts 45–60 minutes and costs $125 for five weeks. The fee only covers 20 percent of the actual cost. The remaining 80 percent is covered via donations. A sliding scale is applied to student fees, based on financial need. About 20 percent of the children receive partial or full tuition assistance through Ride for Joy.
As a nonprofit organization, Ride for Joy encourages donations, which make the program affordable for the children. In September 2009, Ride for Joy initiated an annual fundraising drive. Contact them to contribute.
The program is popular and there is a waiting list this year. “Our ultimate goal is to have our own indoor and outdoor facility open year-round,” says James.
Canines Capture Hearts
St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center
Pet Therapy Program
Idaho Paws for Effect
Registered handler/dog teams are serving in hospitals, camps, and libraries.
Boisean June Disotell and her dog Kahlo volunteer at the structured pet therapy program at St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise. Kahlo is a 15-pound xoloitzcuintle (pronounced “show-low-eats-queent-lee”), a hairless breed of dog originating in Mexico.
“No one enjoys being in the hospital, and a child especially can have emotional problems and physical pain,” says June. “Petting a dog gives a few moments of joy and happiness.”
Pet therapy teams visit at St. Luke’s three times per week year-round. The first stop is always the Pediatric Unit, and then teams go to various other hospital units.
“Sometimes it almost brings tears to your eyes, the reactions we have,” June says. She has witnessed a little boy in coma flutter his eyes open when his hand was placed on a dog. Another time, a reclusive little girl got out of her hospital bed to visit a dog in the hall and ended up giggling and smiling.
June is one of several volunteer handlers who help train the volunteer canine teams at St. Luke’s. She says that not all dogs make the cut. First, they must register with Therapy Dogs Inc. (therapydogs.com). Then both the dog and handler have to pass three observations in a healthcare setting. June is looking for reasonable dog obedience, including walking nicely on a leash; responding to sit, down, and stay commands; and the ability to lie quietly on a bed. Signs of aggression are not tolerated, leading to immediate dismissal. Dogs must be well groomed, with their fur coats brushed and teeth cleaned.
“The main thing is the dogs truly love people and feel all human beings were put on the earth to pet them,” says June.
Rene Kaiser-Riley, of Meridian, started Idaho Paws for Effect in 2008. She works with agencies and facilities, setting up a safe and quality pet therapy program using registered teams in the Treasure Valley. Her business and website serve as a clearinghouse for information on pet therapy using dogs.
She is also a volunteer tester/observer for Therapy Dogs Inc., and is one of the volunteer coordinators for the St. Luke’s pet therapy program involved in training St. Luke’s teams.
She estimates there are about 230 Idaho teams registered with Therapy Dogs Inc., the majority being in southern Idaho. Assisted living centers, nursing homes, hospices, and libraries across the valley access the services of canine/handler teams.
Pet Therapy teams volunteering at valley public libraries help children with reading skills. Dogs lie beside a child as the child reads aloud. The presence of a non-judgmental dog allows the child to gain confidence in reading skills. The handler is present as well, and does not correct the child’s reading.
Kaiser-Riley says studies show reading once a week with a dog for 15– 20 minutes raises the child’s reading level in just a few months. “It improves their overall quality of school life and at home,” she says. Check your local library for the fall schedule.
Teams also visit each year at Camp Rainbow Gold near Sun Valley, an American Cancer Society accredited camp for children. In 2009, ten volunteer teams spent a day at camp.
Boise–based writer Natalie Bartley enjoys her own form of pet therapy with her yellow Labrador retriever.
Photo courtesy of Mini Joys, Inc.