BY JESSICA SCHOFIELD
The adage “A dog is a man’s best friend” can be said not only for men but for women and children, too, because of some very important paws. In the Monroe County Humane Association’s VIPaws program, trained human and animal teams visit schools, nursing homes, and other places in the community to provide benefits for both people and pets.
“It’s all about increasing the human and animal bond,” says VIPaws coordinator Sarah DeLone. Animals are therapeutic, she says, because they “change the whole energy of a room.”
VIPaws is the local affiliate of Delta Society’s Pet Partners, a national program that trains volunteers and evaluates their pets before allowing them to visit facilities. In Monroe County, the program consists of 11 active volunteers and 15 dogs who visit various facilities, or anywhere a client wants them to go. Some teams even work with physical therapists to help patients rehabilitate.
VIPaws volunteer Deborah Zigler also advocated for a reading program at Monroe County Public Library, and received a Martin Luther King grant to build the program. In association with VIPaws, Zigler created Animal Reading Friends (ARF), in which children in the library take turns reading to dogs.
It is important to Zigler that she builds relationships between her dogs—Frank, a 9-year-old golden retriever, and Stanley, a 7-year-old chocolate lab—and the people they visit. “Dogs have different personalities,” Zigler says. Frank especially “loves a lot of activity.” For the past six years Zigler, Frank, and Stanley have visited Bell Trace Senior Living Community, and Zigler has seen some heartwarming relationships develop. Frank was even mentioned in one client’s obituary because of the happiness he had brought her.
DeLone says they are seeking more volunteers with a good pet, whether a dog, a cat, or even a guinea pig, that has lived with the owner for at least six months. Owners and their animals are evaluated together before being certified for VIPaws. Zigler says obedience training (by positive reinforcement, like treats) is an important part of the program. More important is the animal’s personality; the best candidates are outgoing and friendly.