The second Saturday of the month, three small dogs trot down a hallway in the long-term care unit of NHC HealthCare. The two long-haired pups — one white, one gray — turn their heads expectantly at each open door, as the tiny rat terrier tugs slightly on his leash, inspecting something on the other side of the hall.
It is nearing the end of the monthly PAWS visit — a ministry of First United Methodist Church of Anniston where church members and their pets visit NHC assisted living residents and rehabilitation patients.
As they pass one of the last doors on the hall, a petite brunette pops her head out and flags them down.
“Can you bring them in and let my mom see them, please?”
Three wagging tails happily oblige.
A calendar on the wall of Bille Woodward’s room has the PAWS visit clearly marked. Her daughter, Joni Ray, says she always visits when she knows the dogs are coming.
“It just calms her down so much … she’s happier — I can tell she’s happier,” Ray said.
Woodward has been a resident at NHC since November 2012. Before that, she was in and out of rehab, and before that, Ray brought her home to live with her. At the time, her daughter’s dog, a Westie by the name of Chloe, was staying there as well. The two became instantly attached, Ray said.
“She watched over Mom,” Ray said. “She’d sit right beside her on the couch, she’d go get in the bed with her.”
During one of Woodward’s stints at the rehabilitation center, Ray often brought Chloe with her to visit. It seemed to make a difference.
“I think dogs have a sense of people’s needs,” she said. “They know when people have special needs.”
FUMC’s canine visitation program was established more than 25 years ago. Every month since, a group of church members and their four-legged friends gather at NHC Healthcare and spend the afternoon going room to room — the dogs clamoring into wheelchair-bound laps and sidling up to bedsides all along the way. Everyone wants to pet them and often ask to hold the smaller dogs. Often patients will share stories about a pet they once loved.
It’s been about eight years since PAWS founder Rita Wells handed over the reins to Yvonne Alt. But Alt knows, to the residents and patients of NHC, she is not the face of PAWS — that role is filled by the furry faces of Gili and Twila, the two Havanese that make the rounds with her each month.
Alt believes it’s their natural gentleness and unconditional love for humans that make dogs so uniquely gifted at this type of therapy.
“Mine are always happier when people are around,” she said.
Especially for patients for whom visits come few and far between, the PAWS pups’ wagging tales offer the simple joy of knowing someone is glad to see you.
Canine therapy programs like PAWS are popping up across the country in what seems to be an endless variety of programs — from calming frazzled airline passengers at LAX to comforting residents of Newtown, Conn., in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Throughout central Alabama, the professionally trained dogs of Hand in Paw, an animal-assisted therapy organization founded in Birmingham in 1996, can be found in more than 60 facilities — visiting the sick, comforting the troubled and inspiring recovery.
In addition to visitation programs similar to PAWS, there are programs in place at Magnolia Creek Treatment Center for young women struggling with eating disorders and at the Bell Center, where doctors have built physical therapy programs designed with canine partners in mind. Hand in Paw dogs have even managed to get through to the at-risk youths of Glenwood Autism and Behavioral Health Center.
Twice a year, Pawsitive Living conducts a 12-week session with the young residents of the Daniel Houses — boys ages 4-16, many of whom have been removed from dangerous home environments or find themselves facing juvenile detention. Cynthia Olsson has participated in the Pawsitive Living program at Glenwood for close to a decade.
“They’re angry, they’ve got all these walls up. They don’t want to be there, they don’t want to be with you,” she describes. That’s where Olsson’s partner, a 2-year-old Golden retriever named Susie, and others like her come in. “The dogs just break through that barrier.”
For children with every reason not to rely on those entrusted with their care, Susie’s temperament of calm trust and unflagging loyalty often sparks a connection that weeks on a therapist’s couch couldn’t manage.
“They know the dog isn’t going to hurt them, isn’t going to abuse their trust, doesn’t care what they look like, doesn’t care what they’ve done. And that’s how we build a relationship with them,” explained Olsson.
Besides acting as an icebreaker, the dogs take a central role in activities designed to address complex issues such as self-control and intolerance.
The younger boys sometimes don’t grasp the concepts, Olsson said. “They just want to pet the dog but as they’re petting and brushing, they start talking.”
Susie is Olsson’s second canine therapy partner. For eight years, Boyd, also a Golden, accompanied her to Glenwood. The last child who got to know Boyd started the program “deathly afraid of dogs,” Olsson recalls. “But Boyd was so calm and sweet, it got to where he’d zoom into the room and go straight to Boyd, he was so happy to see him. He really loved Boyd.”
They were not yet halfway through the 12-week session when Boyd passed away. Although it was incredibly difficult, Olsson said the thought of the young man waiting for her weekly visit kept her showing up — even without her partner. She worried how losing his friend would affect him, and in a few weeks got her answer.
“Later on he said to me, ‘Ms. Cynthia, I just want to tell you I’ve had a hard time with anger for a long time, but now when I get angry I think about Boyd and how calm he was,’” Olsson recounts. “And then he got to meet Susie.”