Fort Collins group uses dogs to help people heal

FORT COLLINS — Shelby walks into Putnam Elementary School of Science once a week with the determination to do her job right. Her red vest shows that she’s there to do business — she’s there to change lives.

She doesn’t communicate the way most therapists do, but that’s probably because, unlike most therapists, she’s a golden retriever mix who uses slobbery kisses, gentle nudges and warm hugs to help her clients.

“Shelby’s great with kids,” owner Sandy Dailey said. “She’s extremely patient. She’s very smart. And she gets very excited to be here and put her vest on because she knows what she’s about to do.”

Dailey and Shelby have volunteered as a team for five years with Human-Animal Bond in Colorado, or HABIC, a program based at Colorado State University for the past 20 years. The program uses the human-animal bond to assist in therapy and activities at everywhere from schools and nursing homes to rehabilitation facilities and detention centers. The group has 150 active human-animal partnerships using 149 dogs and one cat.

Shelby has worked with five different children in her time with the organization, three of whom have been at Putnam. Children practice obedience training, touching her safely and gently and performing different “party tricks” as a fun way to practice communication and social skills.

With one little boy this year, Shelby loves to play a game where the boy hides treats in cups and shuffles them around. She then uses her very astute nose to overturn the cups that have treats in them — once he tells her it’s time.

On the surface, it may seem like a mock obedience school. But every little trick and pet has a connection to the real world and to the healing process, said Putnam’s school psychologist, Kelly Webb.

Webb and a team of mental health professionals at the school refer children to the HABIC program and work alongside human-animal partnerships to help students.

“It’s amazing to me how we can connect Shelby to almost anything,” Webb said. “Her feelings, her emotion and her hygiene all relate to things we work on. It’s something you can’t quite put a finger on, but there’s something special about that bond. No matter what we do, we connect it back to the classroom and learning.”

Georgia and Ben Granger, co-directors of HABIC, started the organization, like many who work in the animal therapy and animal assisted activity world, to help people in need. The program is celebrating two decades of work in Colorado. Before coming to CSU, the couple worked with a similar program in Tennessee for seven years.

Overall, there are 45 HABIC programs, 25 of which are in public schools.

“(Animal therapy) is more than just warm and fuzzy,” Georgia Granger said. “It’s good for the dog, it’s good for the human. It’s amazing how intelligent and how intuitive our dogs are. They sense what’s needed and who needs them most.”

All of HABIC’s animals have natural abilities to connect and love humans that make them good for therapy, but the organization doesn’t rely on natural talent alone. Interested human-animal partnerships start with an orientation to learn more about the program and the various trainings involved. After that, a trainer does a pre-evaluation to see if an animal is a good fit. If the animal moves on to the next stage, animal and owner go through a formal obedience training, followed by observation and eventual placement.

Throughout a volunteer’s work with HABIC, the Grangers monitor and observe partnerships in action to make sure all guidelines are followed and sessions are going as planned.

Clients are allowed to use the animals for only one hour at a time to allow recovery time and maintain a positive experience that the dog — or the one cat — will want to come back to.

Partnerships are joined by a professional who already has a relationship with the client to provide the best care possible.

“We know it’s extensive, but we feel it’s very important to be extensive in our training,” Georgia Granger said. “We have a big responsibility to be careful because we’re dealing with human lives. We have some really hard cases, and they have to be dealt with careful. That’s why we deal with a professional who knows the client and what’s needed — and how a person might respond to our animals.”

HABIC is one of many animal therapy agencies and trainings in Colorado. While most HABIC dogs work one-on-one with clients, other organizations lend their human-animal partnerships to group therapy sessions.

At Touchstone Health Partners in Fort Collins, behavioral health clinician Stacia Ertel uses therapy dogs from a variety of certification programs to facilitate an anger management curriculum with children receiving therapy from Touchstone. The dogs she works with come from places like Therapy Dogs Inc., Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) and People Animals Love.

Regardless of where the dogs come from, she’s seen an increased benefit to her clients who interact with the animals in a formal therapy setting.

“The animal provides a safe presence for them,” she said. “These dogs build trust with the client right off the bat, which sometimes isn’t there between a client and physician as quickly. That connection can be a really good transitional object.”

Robin Phelps, who works in holistic animal care and uses her dogs to assist in healing touch appointments for humans, said dogs can often provide a sense of security and release for people who otherwise struggle to “put on a show” for other humans.

On a personal level, Phelps often took advantage of therapy dogs — likely from HABIC — during her finals at CSU. HABIC makes therapy dogs available for students at some points of the semester to help with stress relief. Her son’s school also utilizes therapy dogs to help with reading.

“The main reason it works is there’s an unconditional love between humans and animals,” she said. “You don’t have to prove anything to the animal — you can just be your authentic self. ... Animals don’t have an agenda. You can really let your guard down and just be who you are ... that goes into a whole host of physical, emotional and mental benefits.”


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