It was Christmas 1994 when Scarlet Ross and her 10-year-old son went to get photos of their cat and dog with Santa.
Getting a dog let alone a cat to cooperate for such a photo op might be tough.
Not for these pets. Neither one seemed fazed by being held by a bearded stranger in a bright red suit.
Amazed by their calmness, someone approached Scarlet and asked her if she would be interested in getting her animals involved with a new animal therapy group: the Human Animal Bond (HAB).
After all, the stranger explained, if her animals were so even-tempered with Santa, theyd probably make great therapy animals.
Scarlet was immediately intrigued.
She decided to leave the cat at home, but she took her sheltie to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to see if he was a good fit. He passed with flying colors, and “Thats just how I got involved,” she says. She remains a volunteer with HAB to this day.
The volunteer-run organization was started by the U.S. Military Veterinary Services because they know how strong the bond between humans and animals can be.
The military veterinary services “felt that animals had a particular benefit to army families because of all the moving,” explains Ruie Gibson, a long-time HAB board member and volunteer.
Not to be confused with service dogs, therapy dogs can provide comfort and support to those who need it. And there is science to back it up.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and doctors have used, and continue to use, therapy dogs with patients because they have found they can help reduce feelings of depression.
The military wrote a regulation, and the animal therapy group Human Animal Bond was born to help provide this service to those in need of comfort and support.
Families that are interested in being a part of HAB can sign up their dogs, cats, and even rabbits to be therapy pets.
If these animals pass the temperament test, they can join the HAB network with their family.
“I would say that 99% of the time, the people who come to us and who want to do this, or think that their pet would be good at this, pass the temperament test no problem,” Ruie says. “They wouldnt even consider it if they didnt think their dog would like it.”
Once theyre members, the families take a special training session once a year which, Ruie says, is actually more for the owners than the dogs.
After that, the volunteers and their therapy pets sign up for and attend as many HAB events as they can with their schedules.
Sometimes the HAB therapy pets go to schools and libraries to meet students.
They even help kids who are having trouble reading practice doing it aloud.
Other times, the pets visit nursing homes, elderly care facilities, or rehab facilities.
They also go to a minimum security correctional facility on the military base to visit nonviolent offenders.
“Thats a very popular program,” Ruie says, adding that there is always a waiting list of inmates wanting to see the dogs.
Scarlet has now been an active volunteer with HAB for the last 23 years and has had several of her dogs join the program.
“It is very important to me,” she says. “Its very rewarding to see the joy of it.”
“A couple of years ago, I had a dog that was blind, deaf, and incontinent, and we would go to the nursing home and talk about that,” Scarlet remembers.
This dog, named Aunt Bea, was 12 or 13 when Scarlet adopted her, and she was also missing her teeth. When she went to the nursing home to visit, Aunt Bea “had to wear her Depends,” Scarlet continues, but “many of the residents related to her health condition. … They really enjoyed meeting her.”
Today, Scarlet’s two dogs a rescued golden retriever named Josie and a wild-haired shih tzu named Phyllis Diller are both in the program.
“I love sharing my animals with these people that have had animals in the past and cant have them now,” she says. “They get to hug them, they pet them, and I take photos of them with my pet and give it to them so they can have it.”
That’s why she particularly loves visiting the nursing homes with her dogs.
“So many need a special touch or hug that they used to get,” she says.
Being involved with HAB has also helped make Scarlet feel closer to her animals too.
“I love all of my dogs, however, with my therapy dogs there is a special bond and closeness,” she explains. “When you work with them like that, thats a special connection.”
Whether it’s visiting the elderly or helping kids practice reading, it’s clear that HAB has been making a difference in peoples lives.
All animal lovers understand the joy their pets can bring. But sharing that joy is a step beyond.
All it takes is one visit at a school or nursing home to know your therapy dog is making a difference, Ruie says. “Sometimes they might not even want to touch the dog, but just being in the presence, its amazing what a difference it can make.”
“You might not know that it raises someones mood right away, but after you talk to a nurse, you find out that this patient hadnt talked all day until they saw the dog.”
“Its amazing the things that do happen in their presence,” she adds, “I dont know how long it stays that way, but at least for a short time, they feel better.”
If you think your pet would make a good therapy pet and you live in the Fort Leavenworth area, check out their website for ways to get involved as a volunteer.