We had a chance to learn more about CAREing Paws, Inc. by speaking to Melissa Saul, President and founder of the all-volunteer organization along with her pups, Gina & Annie. They have registered therapy dog teams in Georgia that visit nursing homes, hospitals, libraries and schools. What an amazing group!
Tell us a little about the CAREing Paws organization. How did it start?
The mission of CAREing Paws, Inc. is to enrich the lives of others by embracing the power of the human-animal bond. All CAREing Paws teams must be registered with a national therapy organization such as Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Pet Partners. CAREing Paws does not do its own evaluation and testing, but functions as a local/regional umbrella organization that establishes relationships with various facilities and acts as a conduit to provide its members with opportunities for therapy and reading visits. That’s the main reason I formed CAREing Paws!
What is a Therapy Team and what characteristics are needed for this pawsome therapy interaction to be successful?
A therapy team consists of a human handler and their animal, mostly dogs, but PP does register other animals besides dogs.
Before you can begin the process, you and your animal must have good foundational obedience skills including a reliable “sit”, “down”, “stay”, “come when called” and “leave it”. Your animal should be able to walk at your side with a loose leash. Most importantly, you and your animal must have a great relationship!
Precise obedience skills are not required, however the handler must have control of their animal at all times while visiting. You need to be observant; work together as a team; anticipate your animal’s responses, behavior and positions; and be able to redirect your animal as needed. If you feel you need more training, it is highly recommended that both you and your animal enroll in a positive-reinforcement/force free dog obedience course or therapy team preparatory course.
What are the typical attributes of a great therapy animal?
- Is comfortable being crowded by a group of people
- People-oriented/sociable, friendly and confident
- Will initiate contact, stay engaged, make eye contact, and allow their behaviors to be redirected
- Is able to cope with stressful situations
- Knows how to respect personal boundaries; doesn’t jump up on people
- Is non-aggressive towards animals and people
- Is comfortable being touched, at times awkwardly
- Is controllable, predictable and reliable
- Well-mannered interactions with other animals
- Reliability despite distractions
- Ability to be cued from different positions
- Able to disregard food or toys on cue, i.e. with a “leave it” command
- Comfortable around health care equipment
What are the typical attributes of a great handler?
- Is friendly – makes eye contact, smiles, etc.
- Is a proactive advocate for their animal
- Is a considerate and caring leader
- Develops a relationship with their animal that reflects a loving partnership
- Prepares themselves and their animal for each visit
- Assesses a visit before, during and after
- Is attentive in all situations
- Knows how to enhance their animal’s abilities to be its best with the people it’s visiting
- The handler is aware of signs of animal stress, behaviors, and positions, and can reassure their animal with cues, or commands (as needed) to help the animal be successful
How does a dog become a therapy dog?
The human and the animal are evaluated together as a team. One must complement the other. It truly is a partnership. Each must honor the other.
CAREing Paws Teams are all registered Therapy Teams with one of the national organizations that offers training, testing, evaluation and liability insurance, like Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) or Pet Partners . This is the first prerequisite for becoming a CAREing Paws Team. Each organization will provide you the liability insurance that you’ll need but there are some differences in training, cost, testing requirements, and renewing your membership between the organizations that might be important to you. We recommend that you research them both and then pick the one that you think will be the best fit for you and your dog. If you need help deciding, please give us a call and we’ll walk through it together with you.
Your R.E.A.D. Program looks really cool! How do the kids benefit from reading to dogs?
I think the biggest benefit of the R.E.A.D. program is the confidence it gives them.
The goal of CAREing Paws R.E.A.D. Teams is to improve the literacy skills of children through the assistance of nationally registered therapy teams as literacy mentors. CAREing Paws utilizes these therapy teams who volunteer to go to schools, libraries and many other settings as reading companions for children.
Some of the documented benefits of therapy with animals include lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, increased relaxation, and a tendency to forget about pain and limitations. A research study almost 30 years ago found that when children get nervous, especially when talking to others, their blood pressure can rise very high, but that if a dog joins the scene, blood pressure will go down very low, whether the child and dog are sitting quietly together or whether the child is reading to the dog. We suspect part of that is because dogs are so trustworthy-people just know they don’t have to be self-conscious or worried or embarrassed when they’re with a dog.
Remember that even most adults are terrified of public speaking, and most of us have forgotten how daunting it is to have to expound in front of our peers. Often, kids who are learning to read get stressed, not because they aren’t capable of reading but because they get nervous and self-conscious, they worry about making mistakes, they worry about looking dumb-and all those worries make it hard to focus. They dread reading in front of their friends, so they often “freeze up” and things just get worse.
When they read with a dog, right away they start to relax, and then they forget about feeling self-conscious or nervous, and pretty soon things start to flow a little better. Before they know it, they are enjoying the experience of reading instead of dreading it, they’re even looking forward to the next time. It is simple, and it works beautifully! It also extends beyond the immediate reading experience-many teachers have noted that children who participate in the R.E.A.D. program start to raise their hands and speak out in class when they never could before.
Paws Up & Tail Wags to all your dedicated volunteers, who, as you say, are the “heart & soul” of the organization! How can someone become a volunteer?
CAREing Paws Teams are all registered Therapy Teams with one of the national organizations. If they wish to do the Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.) program there is additional training for the handler. Handlers must register and take the R.E.A.D. training course. We offer this training at least quarterly through CAREing Paws.
CAREing Paws provides mentoring and support for all new R.E.A.D. Teams. After you become a registered R.E.A.D. team, two shadow visits are required. The first shadow visit is you without your animal, observing an experienced R.E.A.D. team working with the children. You are observing, asking questions, taking notes, and getting ready to read with your animal! During the second shadow visit, the children will be reading to you and your animal while the experienced handler (without their animal) is positioned nearby just in case you need help, have questions, or require assistance of any kind. You may complete as many shadow visits as you desire in order to feel confident and comfortable before volunteering alone.
Of course we do have volunteers without animals, too! They are especially important to us because their hands are free! These volunteers serve in administrative capacities and actively manage our library reading programs. They handle such aspects as scheduling and permissions.
Your group has several dogs who have their own Toki Poki pet trading cards. How do you use them?
We distribute the Toki Poki pet trading cards in many different facilities where we visit including hospitals, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and our reading programs. In the nursing homes, they serve as “calling cards” to let a patient or a resident know that we stopped by to see them but they either weren’t there or were asleep when we visited. The kids LOVE having a picture of the dog! It serves as a special memento of the time they shared reading their favorite stories to the dog. (Check out the entire CAREing Paws Toki Poki Collection)
“Do The Toki Poki” is our motto — meaning we celebrate our pets as they show their unconditional love & whimsy spirit. How do YOU Do The Toki Poki?
CAREing Paws recognizes that our pets are important members of our families and some of our greatest spiritual teachers and companions. In addition to our regular therapy visits, we love to just have FUN with our pets and celebrate and honor them. We participate in a lot of events such as college stress relief, Christmas and July 4th parades. We have quarterly meetings where we get to spend time with each other without our animal companions and we have occasional training and learning sessions to keep our knowledge up to date – we are always learning!
Please share information about your pups, Gina & Annie.
Gina is the most amazing dog in the world! She’s my rockstar! She is a 14 year-old English Labrador Retriever and a registered therapy dog with Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD), as well as, a registered R.E.A.D. dog. Gina absolutely LOVEs her job! She participates in many of my ATD tests and observations as the neutral dog. Her job is to help the dog being tested to feel calm and comfortable. Gina enjoys listening to kids read stories to her and visiting with all kinds of people – the more the merrier! One of her most favorite visits is to college de-stress events. It’s like an hour long massage!!! When she is not getting belly rubs or reading upside down, she likes to go hiking and swimming!
As a perpetually young English Labrador Retriever, Annie has great energy and her enthusiasm lights up a room the minute she walks in! She loves to play – the tennis ball is her favorite toy – and she greets everybody with a vigorously wagging tail and that famous Labrador smile! Annie has been a therapy dog since she was 2 years old (she is now 8 y/o) and she visits regularly at our local nursing homes, rehab facilities, airports, college campuses, schools and libraries where she spreads her joy and happiness to all she meets! Annie is a registered therapy dog with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and a registered Reading Education Assistance Dog. She often assists me in evaluating new therapy teams for CAREing Paws when Gina is not available. She enjoys teaching new dogs what it’s like to be a therapy dog and they, in turn, feel much more comfortable with Annie leading the way! Annie is the essence of a loving Labrador. She will fill your heart up!
Thank you for all your dedication “embracing the human-animal bond.” Is there anything else you would like to add about your organization?
We are constantly seeking more therapy team volunteers. If you and your dog would like to become a registered therapy team, please let us know! For more information, you can visit our website or follow us on social media!