Indianapolis-based nonprofit Paws & Think is on a mission to improve the lives of the most vulnerable by connecting them with dogs. But its business plan was upended by the pandemic. The organization offers programs to connect specially-trained canines to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, recovering in a healthcare setting, or working with at-risk youth. The nonprofit is celebrating 20 years of service this year.
In an interview with Business of Health reporter Kylie Veleta, Executive Director Kelsey Burton explained the health benefits of the human-canine relationship.
“We take trained therapy dogs to over 60 different locations throughout Central Indiana, including schools, libraries, eldercare, facilities, hospitals, and we do a lot of support groups as well,” explained Burton. “We also have a youth canine program where we pair up at-risk youth with shelter dogs, and the kids train the shelter dogs and basic obedience skills.”
In-person pet therapy visits came to a screeching halt last year when the pandemic hit. But Burton says that the program is set to relaunch.
“Not patients yet. We’re getting there, hopefully soon. But we are able to be and greet our associates or the staff at the hospitals,” said Burton. “One of the days we walked in, the staff cheered, there were tears, people were just so happy to have that mental health break that they’ve longed for.”
Burton says because of social distancing and masks, the organization had to retrain the dogs a little bit.
“We had to get the dogs comfortable to the smell of hand sanitizer. They’re having to hand sanitize before and after interacting with our dogs, which is great for safety, but not so great for a dog who can smell things way more strongly than humans can,” said Burton, who adds the dogs also had to get re-trained on facial expressions that could be covered with masks.
“Just get our dogs used to some of the new normal that they’re going to see when they’re out in the community.”