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The transformative power of therapy animals with Mary Margaret Callahan

    Show Notes

    The transformative power of therapy animals with Mary Margaret Callahan of Pet Partners

    We pet guardians see our companion animals as more than just animals, creatures with four legs roaming around our homes or yards, waiting for their next dinner.

    Many of us see them as family … some of us, as our children.

    Still more of us look at them as vital sources of therapy and emotional support. Our best fur friends – or hairless or scaled, whichever you choose – become vital sources of therapy and emotional support. They give us comfort, help us reduce stress and provide us with a sense of stability and responsibility.

    Mary Margaret with Abe

    A small group of pet guardians take their animals’ secret powers and share them with others.

    Today’s guest is Mary Margaret Callahan, the chief mission officer at Pet Partners, an organization dedicated to improving human health and wellbeing through the power of therapy animals.

    The nine different species  that Pet Partners registers bring joy, comfort and healing to countless individuals in hospitals, schools, senior living facilities and many other environments.

    Mary Margaret and I dive into the profound impact the volunteer teams have on the humans they visit and Mary Margaret share some insights into the human-animal bond that transcends the guardian-companion relationship.

    What to Listen For

    • The different species Pet Partners registers as therapy animals
    • The impact therapy animals have in different environments
    • How Pet Partners evaluates therapy animal teams
    • Why pet guardians must be aware of their animals’ comfort in a therapy environment

    Where to Find Pet Partners

    PetPartners.org

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    Transcript

    Angela  

    Good morning, Mary Margaret Callahan. How are you this morning?

    Mary Margaret 

    I am very well, Angela. Thanks for having me. Yeah,

    Angela  

    Let’s get started by having you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

    Mary Margaret 

    Absolutely. So my name is Mary Margaret. I am the chief mission officer for Pet Partners. Pet Partners is a fantastic nonprofit organization that registers therapy animals, nine different species of therapy animals, across all of the United States and in several other countries around the world. So we’ve got people who are volunteering in their communities with their beloved pets, trying to help their communities help individuals with the presence of that animal.

    Angela  

    OK, hold on just a second. You said therapy animals? Are there more animals involved in therapy than dogs?

    Mary Margaret 

    There are now I will say the vast majority of our registered teams are canines, right? About 94%, I’d say of our approximately, you know, almost 10,000 teams are dogs, but we do register a total of nine different species. And some of them may be a little surprising to you. So you know, the second most popular species that Pet Partners registers actually equine, usually miniature horses, miniature horses, oftentimes, in terms of stature, are sort of comparable to an extremely large breed dog, right. And so they can go into different places and go into assisted living homes, they can go into schools and places like that to interact with the public. So we do have a lot of wonderful miniature horses registered. But also, we do have cats. Now, I’ve been a cat owner for most of my life, in addition to a dog owner, and many other animals, and some people are like cats. Now, let’s say every cat can do this. But there are cats, who do truly love interacting with new people. And for those cats, therapy cats, there. Awesome. Just amazing. So dogs, cats, horses, then we’ve got some of our smaller animals. So guinea pigs, rabbits, they can make amazing therapy animals, especially if you have someone who might be a little bit anxious around larger animals like large dogs, they’re not nearly as intimidating right? Then you get into some of our less common species, right? So we do have some llamas and alpacas registered. Can you imagine if you were recovering in the hospital from surgery and Allama came in to visit you. I’m telling you there, they can have a huge impact, but there’s not a lot of them. Same with some of our other fabulous species, we do have some pot bellied pigs, we have some parrots, we also have domesticated rats. And some people are like, ooh, rats. Now this is say not every animal has to be therapeutic to you. But everybody finds a different animal therapeutic. And one of the things that I have loved hearing from some of our amazing handlers who bring their domesticated rats into settings. Some of the people who really resonate are people who feel like they were once judged on their outside appearance or prematurely before someone got to know them. The rats suffer that too. They kind of have a PR problem, right? So we have people like kids in juvenile justice, they love rats. Right? Because they feel like they have been unfairly judged sometimes before someone has gotten to know them. I think our rats might have something in common with them.

    Angela  

    Hmm, that does make sense. I’m still trying to picture a llama walking down the hallways of a hospital though.

    Mary Margaret 

    If you saw it, you’d never forget it.

    Angela  

    It would absolutely make my day. You did you have alluded to several of the environments already where therapy teams are useful. Can you go into a little more detail on that? Absolutely.

    Mary Margaret 

    In the most classic examples of places where therapy animals are often invited in, tend to be places where healing is happening, right? hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, rehab facilities. That’s someplace that that animals can bring a lot of value. So some of the wonderful things the benefits that therapy animals have in those settings as people tend to be more compliant with their treatment, right? We hear stories all the time of incorporating therapy animals in a physical therapy or an occupational therapy setting. Because how much more fun is it to brush a dog to practice that range of motion exercise for your shoulder than to just do it while you’re holding a weight and moving it back and forth? Right? So that’s some settings but other settings where we see some Great value is in places where we’re looking to promote interaction and reduce isolation, right. So Senior Living, dementia care, places like that the presence of a therapy, animal can spark conversation can help people feel connected to one another. There’s the opportunity also just to connect with that animal to an opportunity to reminisce about pets you may have had in the past. And then of course, schools and libraries, reading programs with therapy, animals have been popular for a long time, and continue to be so. And so we see lots of great opportunities in school settings, whether it’s more formally as part of an educational unit, where you’re learning about something or whether it’s just to boost interest in reading, right, and getting people kids to practice because that dog is never going to correct you about your pronunciation. If you’re practicing reading out loud, they just are happy to be there. But really, you can find a therapy animal, it’s been in almost every situation, I was flying just a couple of weeks ago for a business trip. And I got to meet some of our partners therapy animal teams in the Minneapolis Airport. They go there to reduce stress for travelers. So there’s so many wonderful places, and I, anybody who is a therapy animal team, one of the questions they ask themselves is, where are we most interested in adding value in our community? And that can drive where therapy animal teams, you find them? Nice.

    Angela  

    So what does it take to become a therapy animal team then?

    Mary Margaret 

    So becoming a team? As team implies, there’s two parts, right? You’ve got to have the right animal, and then you, as the handler have to have your correct preparation, too. So the first thing to ask yourself, if you’re considering Should I become a therapy animal? Does my animal have what it takes? And I had someone tell me once that they said, the therapy animals think that when they walk into the room, the party has been thrown in their honor, right? They are affiliative, they are the social butterflies of their species, right? They want to interact with people, they choose to do that. And choice is a really big thing. Pet Partners really, really focuses on this idea that pets are sentient beings. And they’re capable of making choices and expressing preferences. And we want to honor those choices and preferences. So we’re looking for animals who are choosing to interact with strangers, I had a wonderful little chihuahua for 15 years, she was bonded to me like crazy, she would have done anything I asked, I could have probably asked her to go and be a therapy animal in another setting. And she probably would have done it because I asked and we had that kind of a bond. But you know what, she wouldn’t have enjoyed it. And so I would have never asked her to do that. So you’re really looking for animals who enjoy that interaction, to have strong core obedient skills, right, they need to be sort of reliable and interacting in public. And they need to have that close bond with you. Because you’re communicating with them constantly to make sure that they’re doing okay, they’re doing what you ask, you’re paying attention to what they’re saying back. So that’s the big piece on the dogs or any species for that matter. And then for you as the handler, you’ve got some core skills you need to know about interacting with people and best practices, and Pet Partners can provide education for that.

    Angela  

    Let’s dig a little bit more into that concept of the human animal bond. It has to exist Absolutely. Between the therapy or in the therapy team. But how does that connect when we’re talking about a random therapy dog walking into a random person’s hospital room? And, and the connection that can exist there?

    Mary Margaret 

    So great question. So you’re right, I was talking a lot about the bond between the handler and the animal. But the human animal bond can exist between people who are just a person and an animal who are just meeting right that interaction. And it’s a really interesting thing, right? At its core, we say that the human animal bond needs to be mutually beneficial that both the animal and the person need to benefit from it. Right. And so that’s that when you you had mentioned like, can you imagine I saw a llama coming down the hallway, it would have made my day, right? So there you already you’re, you see this animal who you’ve never met before, and instantly you’re drawn to it, right? Instantly you feel like you’re drawn to have a connection. You’d like to meet that owl, maybe touch that animal, right learn more about that animal. At the same time. This animal has chosen to interact with you too, right? They they desire to have this interaction with you to have the attention the affection and, and and that’s sort of where the magic happens, this great shared interaction where both parties are benefiting from it. And it doesn’t have to be an animal, you know. And sometimes you’ll have people who go, Oh, I’ve, I’ve never met a guinea pig, I’m not sure that I want to write. But sometimes, in that moment, you can realize that there is a desire and interest to interact, and you never have to write, it’s always a choice. But there’s lots of benefits to spending time with animals, reduction in stress, feelings, you know, feelings of peace, of, of happiness, and a lot of times just an opportunity for a spark of joy in our daily lives, right? All these things can benefit us.

    Angela  

    Is there training that that therapy teams have to go through in order to prepare for visits?

    Mary Margaret 

    Most teams choose to do some sort of preparation, there’s not one particular answer for every animal, right, you need to have some core obedience skill. So if we’re talking about dogs, you should be able to walk on a leash a loose leash appropriately, you should be able to listen to your handler and, and sit or down, right, and greet people appropriately, not too exuberantly, right, especially if you happen to be maybe one of those larger breeds, because you might be interacting with smaller, vulnerable populations, right, seniors who may not be steady on their feet, people with delicate skin who a scratch, even if it’s not intentional, could break the skin. So you have to be wanting these animals need to want to do this, but be able to do it in a controlled manner, right, without being overly exuberant. So some people do dog training classes or things like that. Some people choose to do a lot of this training and exposure independently on their own. And either way is fine, right? A lot of times it’s, it’s refining what’s already sort of comes naturally to this animal who wants to interact with people?

    Angela  

    And do you have an evaluation process that therapy teams undergo? We

    Mary Margaret 

    do. So once you have decided you and your animal are ready, you’ve done your training, your animals sort of prepared and you feel confident in their ability to interact with folks. Pet Partners does provide an evaluation, it’s sort of like a simulation of what you might come across on a visit, right? So it’s almost like a big role play where you bring your animal and have them meet the evaluator, and then they’re in settings where maybe there’s a distracting noise in the corner, can your animal recover and still pay attention to you, you have to walk past another animal, another dog neutrally, right. So there’s no potential anxiety or aggression or fear based responses from being in close proximity to another animal. And you’re doing things like seeing how they behave when they’re exposed to medical equipment, like a walker, or a cane or wheelchair, things like that. That’s sort of the core of that evaluation skills, that just demonstrates that your animals going to be reliable in public in a variety of different settings.

    Angela  

    So I have a friend, and I, the name of your group sounds familiar, because she may have been one of your teams here in Spokane. She would take her golden retriever Desi to hospice care. I happen to know that. Well, I mean, everybody happens to know that everything got screwed up by COVID. But, you know, therapy teams were kept out of a lot of their arenas during COVID restriction times, and I know my friend hasn’t been able to go back for personal reasons. Has therapy, animal teams, and their work? Have they recovered from COVID? Are we at full operation?

    Mary Margaret 

    I think we’re still in a recovery period. Personally, I think that B with the impact of COVID, you know, reduce people’s ability to keep visiting, and then we know, and sadly, animals simply don’t live as long as people, right. And one of the things we value so much about our handlers is that they’re putting their animals welfare first. And so as animals aged, at that time, when visit started happening again, I think a lot of handlers ask themselves the question, should we keep doing this and, and maybe decided not to in the best interest of their animals. So we’ve seen a lot of recovery in the last in even in this last year, most notably, right so far in the first part of 2024. We’re seeing a rapid growth, but I don’t think we’re back to where we were pre COVID and It’s a great opportunity. If you’re looking for a way to engage in your community, it’s a great opportunity to do so because you also get to bring your best friend, your beloved pet, your dear pal with you. And being a therapy animal team only strengthens the relationship you have with your animal, if you’re honoring their choices, and and being their advocate in these situations, they know to trust you, you guys have great experiences together and you come home, and you have a great time you blow off some steam, you relax, and you think, wow, we did we made a big difference today.

    Angela  

    So what kind of methods are you using to recruit new therapy teams?

    Mary Margaret 

    Well, I think a lot of people aren’t sure if, you know, they’re not sure if they meet the standards, their animals going to meet the standard. And so I think that’s sort of the first question, we also know that the amount of time it takes for someone deciding maybe they’re interested in going through the steps can take a while because you do need to have your veterinarian sign off on a health form that says your animals healthy, right, you need to do your own education, you may want to take some time to practice your behavior and obedience skills before you evaluate. So it can take a few steps, but I really want to encourage anyone who’s ever thought, I wonder, take some of those first steps do some of that learning, right? And really what it is, is you can go out, you can interact, have your animals interact in public and in safe, controlled places and really pay attention. Sure animal look like they’re enjoying pets, right? I think a lot of people worry that they need to have obedience skills that are equivalent to like, you know, a, a show trial. It’s not the case, right? You don’t have to have the perfect heel, you don’t have to have all these things. You need an animal who is going to follow your cues and is safe and controlled in physical spaces. But it doesn’t have to be perfection. So people who are worried, oh, I’m not sure they’re not always perfect. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, I would say start exploring it and practice the skills you need to practice.

    Angela  

    And certainly people know their dog or animal sorry. They know their animal well enough that they should understand that whether they have a good personality in their animal or not. Certainly, we’re not going to take a reactive dog who doesn’t like outstretched hands in front of their faces or anything like that, right? Absolutely,

    Mary Margaret 

    absolutely. Because again, this is about something your animal wants to do. Right? They are also choosing for you. I think one of the an impactful conversation I had years ago with that prospective with a handler, she had become registered with her dog. And she had had it set in her heart. In her mind, what she really wanted to do was visit at the local elementary school, her mother had been a teacher education was important within their family. And she just knew this is what I wanted to do. She went on her first visit with her dog who had passed their evaluation of wonderful animal. And she was being observant as they’re going around and interacting. And she goes, I could tell she didn’t really like it. And I was a little bit heartbroken because I really wanted to be in the school. And someone who is also an experienced sailor says, Hey, don’t give up, you need to try a different setting. And she goes, Okay, so then there was a senior living center that was in her community. They wanted to have teams there. And she’s like, I guess we could try that her dog loved the seniors loved them, loved them, would melt into their laps and just walk around so peacefully. And then she goes, What’s it’s only really partially about what I want. It’s also about what my animal wants. But sometimes it’s about finding the right environment for the two of you to make a difference.

    Angela  

    So you must have to manage various misconceptions around therapy animal teams, right? Because I think my brain defaults to hospice care. And that might be a little depressing for some people.

    Mary Margaret 

    That’s right. I mean, there are as many different places to volunteer as there are people out there, right. And so you’re looking for that secret sauce, that mix of the environment your animal likes, whether it’s high energy or low energy or quiet or busy, and then someplace that you to feel comfortable and confident volunteering, right? Because you if if you are a someone who doesn’t like to make conversation with strangers, this may not be your most favorite activity, right? Because chances are, you’re gonna walk in the room. And all the attentions could be on your animal, but eventually someone’s gonna say, what kind of dog is this? What breed? How long have you had them? Have you had this breed before and you’re going to end up making chitchat with people. Now, if that sounds like Aeroflot, Thank you. But maybe this isn’t perfect. But a lot of people are more than happy to talk about their animals. But to your point, if hospice feels emotionally draining for you, and hard, that’s not the best environment for you. And that’s okay. Someone else loves that environment and is very, very successful in that setting, find the environment that’s right for you and your animal.

    Angela  

    And further to that point. Our therapy teams might be going into a variety of challenging situations, whether it’s hospice care, hospitals, or youth detention centers, what have you. What does Pet Partners do to assist therapy teams with the possibility of compassion fatigue?

    Mary Margaret 

    That’s a really good question. So that’s part of our, our onboarding or initial training, right? So that, you know, it’s, it’s the old saying, right, like when you’re on the airplane, and they tell you, you have to put on your mask before you can help someone else with their own right, you do need to be aware and sensitive to the fact that both you and your animal can suffer from compassion, fatigue, and burnout, right? So every volunteer is responsible for choosing the cadence of their volunteerism, right? So there’s no expectation that you’re volunteering twice a week, once a week, you know, twice a month, what you decide what’s right for you, and some of our volunteers, they much prefer a half hour short visit over an hour and a half long visit. Because for them and their energy levels, that’s what works for them and their animal. So you have the opportunity to tailor this in so many ways to make it positive for everyone involved. Because the fact of the matter is, if you go in and you’re interacting or visiting with someone who really is looking forward to a visit from a therapy animal, and you’re exhausted and drained, and your animals exhausted and drained, it’s not as positive an experience for that person you’re interacting with.

    Angela  

    Are there signs we should look for in our animals to alleviate the possibility of compassion fatigue?

    Mary Margaret 

    What a great question. And I think that recognizing your animal’s body language is sort of the core for all of this, right? So one of the things Pet Partners offers is a canine body language class for people who are getting started and feel like maybe they don’t have that. But we also know that body language is unique to individual animals. So it’s going to give you that baseline for things you’re looking for. But the initial signs for things like fatigue and burnout are going to look at some level like one of those stress signals, right. And for your animal that could look like lip licking, nervous scratching or itching, it may also look like that they’re just turning away, right? If you’re walking up with your therapy animal to greet someone, and your animal starts to make a 180 and go the other direction. They’re making a choice. Now, they may not be saying it to you in the language that someone else, you know, one of your human peers might say, but that’s their choice. They’re going oh, no, we’re gonna keep walking this way. Moving on. And that’s what we’re looking for people to pay attention to, because there’s never an expectation that you’re forcing your animal to participate in any of this. And if you wake up one day, and your dog is just not acting the way you would expect them to. Dogs are allowed to have bad days, it’s like humans are they’re allowed to have sick days, they’re allowed to have days home. And so you have to be committed as this their owner to always act in their best interest and support their choices.

    Angela  

    At the risk of being a big softy about animals, but I think I’m in a safe space for that. Are animals better at compassion and kindness than some human beings?

    Mary Margaret 

    I think some animals probably are. And I think sometimes, as humans, we’re trying so hard. And in our our head, we’re thinking like, is this the right thing to say? Is this the right thing to do? Should I step closer? Should I give them space? And we’re so sort of caught up in our intellectualizing of how to interact in a space and how to make someone feel comfortable and good. And I think animals have this inherent ability to read situations and sort of know what needs to happen. You know, I’ve heard stories of people who went to go interact with someone and a person who maybe is in a state of grief or a state of shock, or they’re emotionally not capable of interacting with the human in the room, but they’re happy to hold the dog and they want to pet the dog and the dog knows and leans into that. And then, you know, at the end, the person says, Thank you. That was exactly Do what I need it. It’s not something we could have done as the person. Right, it was something only that dog could do in that setting. And so I do think many of these therapy animals are just inherently wired to intuitively know what people need. Isn’t that beautiful? It’s gorgeous. I mean, what a blessing to be able to be able to bring animals into public spaces and offer this as a service. Yeah. I think it can make a huge difference in in really big and also really small wave that we probably don’t even know and can’t, can’t calibrate in any way.

    Angela  

    I couldn’t imagine. Not having a dog in my life. And the idea that I might one day be in a home or a hospital bed, and having a dog visit me when I was incapable of owning or being a pet Guardian myself, would be an incredible gift, I think.

    Mary Margaret 

    And I think one of the things I love so much about therapy visits is people’s opportunity to reminisce about animals they’ve had about the impact on their life. I have, I have a fun story about a therapy horse team, miniature horse, lovely gal registered with her miniature horse, they would visit a senior assisted living facility on a regular basis. And they were kind of a known quantity. And they would go into the common room, which was like the social area that makes them visits. Great fun. And so she walks in with her miniature horse. And this horse sort of sees the gentleman sitting in a recliner and sort of starts to indicate that director say walk over there, and she introduces herself and he doesn’t look like any horse I’ve ever seen. And they have this fun conversation about the fact that he grew up on a ranch and had been exposed to horses all his life. And he had had all sorts of horse but never miniature horse. And so they joked about him being a pretend horse and talked about the horses he had as a child and the horses, he wrote it as an adult, and just had a lovely conversation. And the conversation kind of drew to its natural end, she goes well, we look forward to seeing you the next time we’re here. Thank you so much for chatting with us. And they started to move to another grouping of seniors who was sitting a little ways away. And one of the nurses jetted out from the nurse’s station and said, you were talking to him, you what? What did he say? What were you doing? And she thought, well, this isn’t strange. I talk to people at home. And she goes, Oh, you know, we had a lovely conversation. It’s very nice. When she said he just arrived here three days ago with advancing dementia. And he’s been so confused. He hasn’t spoken to anyone. And you’re the first lucid conversation he’s had since he’s been here. Oh, my gosh, she could have never known that. But talk about something that seems simple, right? And is was such a huge breakthrough for this gentleman in the setting. And it was because a therapy animal team was able to visit Do you cry a lot in your job? Um, sometimes. I mean, it’s the stories like that, that are so amazing. You know, we all have the parts of our job, our work that’s feels a little like drudgery, right? Returning the emails and doing the paychecks and this and that and the other. And then you hear a few stories like this. And you think this is why, and this is why we can we can be wonderful pet guardians and share our animals with the community because I do truly believe that the presence of therapy animals creates a happier, healthier community for everyone. Well,

    Angela  

    where do we find Pet Partners,

    Mary Margaret 

    you should find Pet Partners partners.org. We would love to have you explore the website, we’ve got some information on there. If you’re wondering if you might be the right fit. There’s lots of good information there. We would love to help you get started. So reach out and contact us you got this great opportunity to improve your community with your beloved pet. And if you think you might be the fit, we’d love to meet you. Is

    Angela  

    there anywhere in particular that you need to recruit therapy teams, or is that everywhere? USA.

    Mary Margaret 

    I mean, it really is everywhere. USA, I would say you know, in areas that are maybe less populated, right, smaller cities, things like that. You may not have as many therapy animal teams per capita, let’s say right that you may in larger city centers. So, you know, don’t don’t talk yourself out of it because, oh, I live in a big city. There’s lots of people trust me. There’s more need everywhere now then can be met by volunteers. Absolutely. And if you’re in a community where therapy animals just aren’t really a thing yet, this is your chance to be a trailblazer to show people the value that therapy animals can bring in their community.

    Angela  

    I love it. Mary Margaret, thank you so much for joining us this morning. It has been my pleasure,

    Mary Margaret 

    Angela. Thank you for having me.