By Meredith McGroarty
Most people with pets know that coming home to their dog or cat at the end of the day can produce a sense of relief or contentment. Now, a UT program is bringing the positive power of pet therapy to nursing homes, schools, and other facilities across nearly all of northeast Tennessee.
For twenty-five years, a UT-affiliated program called H.A.B.I.T. (Human Animal Bond in Tennessee) has brought medically and behaviorally screened dogs, cats, and bunnies (called, charmingly, H.A.B.I.T. Rabbits) to local institutions as a way of offering comfort or companionship to people who may need them. Most of the institutions H.A.B.I.T. serves are nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, or other places with elderly residents, and the program works with some schools, as well.
“The founder of H.A.B.I.T. saw that there’s a lot of pain in today’s world, and a lot of that pain is emotional,” says Karen Armsey, H.A.B.I.T. program administrator. “The animals seem to be able to bring an emotional bond and healing to people.”
Previously, the program operated only in areas close to Knox County, but it is now branching out to cover most of northeast Tennessee. H.A.B.I.T. currently serves more than 400 members in twelve counties, and the program is also looking to start partnerships with different types of facilities, like dialysis centers and children’s hospital outpatient areas.
Institutions that wish to participate in H.A.B.I.T. contact the organization and ask to join; once they are approved, H.A.B.I.T. volunteers bring their pets for visits with the audience. The pets are required to be screened for medical and behavioral issues before they are allowed to be part of the program, and Armsey says prior obedience training is often helpful.
In addition to the emotional comfort it provides, there are physical benefits to pet therapy.
“Medical studies have shown that even the presence of an animal in the room lowers a person’s blood pressure and decreases stress hormones,” Armsey says.
Pets also can help out in the classroom. Veterinarian Sally Essick (’84) has been bringing her golden retriever, Eli, to H.A.B.I.T.’s Ruff Reading program for about a year and a half. Ruff Reading, an hour-long session, lets children who are shy about speaking out loud in front of their classmates read to pets instead. Reading to a pet can help a child feel more comfortable with reading and speaking aloud, Essick says.
“The children really seem to enjoy it, and the teachers tell me that it does improve the students’ reading ability,” she says. “Eli seems to be able to understand the children; he is more energetic with the active kids and quieter and more passive with the shy children. As a veterinarian, I have seen a lot of dogs, but it amazes me how a pet can gauge a child’s demeanor and then adjust his behavior to the child’s behavior.”
Pet therapy at schools may pay off academically. Ruth Sapp, East Tennessee program coordinator for H.A.B.I.T., states that for one special education class, general test scores increased by 10 percent after the program was introduced. Armsey adds, however, that there is little hard data on the link between pet therapy and learning; it’s hard to separate improvements related to the pet from those that come from the teacher or classroom environment.
Based on the program’s success with elementary schools and homes for the elderly, H.A.B.I.T. is broadening to include a wider variety of facilities. The program sent therapy dogs to East Tennessee State’s mental health awareness day last spring, and Armsey says that the organization is looking at how pet therapy can help children with cancer.
Armsey and Sapp agree that H.A.B.I.T. benefits volunteers as well as the people they visit.
“A lot of volunteers enjoy and appreciate their own animals so much and want to share those qualities with other people,” Sapp says. “It’s very gratifying to the volunteer to see an animal be able to connect with, say, an elderly person who has dementia. That connection might be the first time that day or week that person has honed in on something going on in the moment. It’s gratifying to see that it’s your dog helping people.”
Essick notes that there is one final beneficiary of pet therapy: the animals themselves.
“I love to see how the kids are so excited to see us—well, mostly Eli—and I love how excited Eli becomes when I put on his red H.A.B.I.T. bandana—he knows he is going to ‘his’ school,” Essick says.
Armsey says the program is always looking for volunteers, and people interested in joining the program or learning more about its work should call 865-974-5633 or visit http://www.utk.edu/habit.