When Beth Franklin first thought about a nonprofit that would use Animal-Assisted Therapy, having a therapy dog or cat was not a common thing and pretty much unheard of in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
It was the 1990s, and Beth was heading the Birmingham Humane Society. She was working with judges in the local courts and using juvenile volunteers who had to perform community service hours at the shelter.
At first, Beth had the teens do menial work, but then she started letting them work more directly with the animals – socializing them, training them in obedience, and generally helping them become more adoptable. In the process, she saw how empowering it was for the teens and how their behavior changed.
That observation was the origins for Hand in Paw (HIP).
“There’s science that shows the benefits of interacting with pets, and it is not just emotional benefits,” said Beth. “Animal therapy reduces stress hormones and lowers blood pressure. Interacting with these animals helps patients of all ages and people who are going through other types of challenges. People just feel better around therapy animals, and that helps them heal faster.”
Once Beth decided to create the nonprofit, she cashed in her assets to finance the program’s launch and made her own dog, Jessica, HIP’s first therapy dog.
Now HIP boasts about 120 teams consisting of volunteer handlers who work with their four-legged dogs and cats to improve human health and well-being through Animal-Assisted Therapy. The HIP teams visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and more, providing a wide variety of services to people of all ages.
HIP’s first and largest program, Petscription, helps improve the mental and physical well-being of people in need. The classic example of this would be the animal that visits a hospital and brings a positive distraction and smiles to patients who might be frightened or in pain. Petting the animal or having it snuggle up to a patient produces a calming and comforting effect.
As one of the people touched by HIP programs recently wrote: "I told my family if I'm ever in the hospital again to contact Hand in Paw because no medicine works on cheering your spirit like a visit from Hand in Paw does!"
But the animals can also assist in specific therapies for patients under the direction of a therapist or other practitioner.
“We’ve had occupational therapists who have patients work on their hand coordination by having them brush the dog,” Beth said. “We also had a physical therapist who couldn’t convince a patient to get out of his hospital room and take a walk down the hall, but changed his mind when he had the opportunity to walk with the dog.”
HIP teams also help in educational efforts, motivating students in need. For example, in the “Sit, Stay, Read!” program, struggling students read on a weekly basis to a nonjudgmental furry friend and their caring handlers. This is great for students who feel self-conscious, fearing that they don’t read as well as their friends or for students who are learning English as a second language.
In the late 1990s, Beth, who holds an MA in Counseling, and Leigh Ann Harrington, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, coauthored a 12-week humane education curriculum called Pawsitive Living™ for at-risk teens and preteens. Designed to foster discussions and encourage participants to identify and express emotions in healthy ways, Pawsitive Living teaches kindness, anger management, and safety through engaging lessons, journaling, field trips, and guest speakers. In 2012, responding to a rising need, they added a No More Bullies! curriculum for children in elementary and middle schools.
The group also has a Trauma & Grief Response program available to schools, workplaces, and other community organizations following tragic events.
“Sometimes it is easier for people to open up to a loving animal than to another person,” said Beth. “The teams aren’t counselors, but they often can serve as a bridge to person-to-person communications and they can be a great tool for counselors in breaking down barriers and building rapport and trust with the people they are trying to serve.”
Throughout HIP’s history, its leaders have been meticulous about the training needed for successful human and pet therapy teams. Dogs must successfully complete a group obedience class before they can even apply to be a HIP therapy dog.
Handlers and dogs go through an interview process, then shadow visit with successful therapy teams. Once a handler is sure they want to move forward, they must undergo four weeks of training and pass an exam to become registered. Each therapy team commits to at least two one-hour visits with a participating hospital, school or organization each month.
While most of the program’s therapy animals are dogs, HIP will also accept other domesticated animals like cats, birds, rabbits and even llamas in the program. Also, people who do not have pets can volunteer as well, often by being a support person to the therapy teams.
About a dozen years after starting HIP, Beth left to pursue work with other organizations. She was the senior development director for the University of Alabama – Birmingham School of Nursing; served as the director of external relations for Oasis Counseling for Women and Children and the development director at Glenwood Autism and Behavioral Health.
She returned to HIP two years ago to handle donor and community relations as the organization began a $2.25 million capital campaign to build a new training center. The new center will help HIP train more teams and help more organizations – currently, there’s a waiting list of 100 groups who would like visits from HIP therapy teams.
One of the most humbling things about the campaign, Beth said, was when a long-time supporter gave the first $500,000 in order to have naming rights to the building. That supporter, Ken Jackson, asked that the building be named after Beth.
“Words cannot convey what that meant – and means – to me,” she said.
You can learn more about Hand in Paw here.
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