Four third-grade students sat reading at four corners of a basement classroom in Broadwater Elementary School on Thursday, March 26, each with a dog or cat lying nearby.
As the pets relaxed, and even snoozed, the children kept on reading. Occasionally one of the adult handlers would chime in and explain a word or encourage the student.
For the students, it was a break from the regular class-time reading and a chance to catch up on reading time with an animal friend. For teachers and the animal handlers, the activity could be a means of changing the kid’s perception of reading from a chore to enjoyable pastime.
“It's just so important to promote the love of learning, and that’s the biggest goal we should have in schools,” Broadwater principal Sue Sweeney said.
The reading program is one of several activities a local group of Intermountain Therapy Animals do around Helena.
Intermountain Therapy Animals was founded over 20 years ago in Salt Lake City, Utah, and aims to tap into the human-animal bond to make life better. The program has since spread across the country through national affiliates that visit schools, libraries, retirement homes, hospitals and other venues to provide therapy.
Around the same time Intermountain was launching, C.J. Puotinen started a therapy animal group in New York. She left that organization, moved back to Montana about six years ago and teamed up with Adele Delp last year to start a Helena chapter of Intermountain Therapy Animals.
The Helena chapter now has about 25 human-animal teams who visit several schools, a few retirement homes and the behavioral health unit at St. Peter’s Hospital.
Any type of domestic pet can try out to become a therapy animal, but not all pets will make it through the rigorous selection process.
Held twice last year and planned twice for this year, the training to become a therapy animal starts with a pre-screening with Delp and Puotinen.
The screening gives Delp and Puotinen a chance to see which animals, most often dogs, and which people would be a good therapy team. Puotinen said it takes a quite, calm animal that doesn’t mind strangers and recovers quickly from distractions to become a good therapy animal.
“Any dog can learn manners. Any dog can learn basic obedience training, like sitting down… that’s just a matter of presenting the activities well and rewarding the dog for doing it. It’s very, very hard to change a dog’s basic disposition,” Puotinen said.
For animals that seem to be a good fit, the handlers move on to an all-day workshop to learn the basics of working in a therapy setting. A few weeks later the owner and animal undergo an evaluation. Those who graduate go on to their first visit with supervision before being able to make visits on their own.
Puotinen said she thinks all the training is what makes Intermountain Therapy Animals stand out. Everyone who runs and participates in the program is a volunteer, but they all “consider animal-assisted therapy a professional-level activity, not a casual hobby,” she said.
Puotinen said Intermountain animals can do two types of visits: The “hug and kiss” visits that are just meant to brighten someone’s day, and the Animal Assisted Therapy visits that have specific health goals.
Intermountain animals make regular hug and kiss visits at the Masonic Home and Touchmark senior living. Puotinen said residents will often talk about the visit in the days before and after the dogs come.
At St. Peter’s Behavioral Health Unit, the visits are considered therapeutic.
The unit’s recreation therapist, Heather Myers, said the dogs provide emotional support and bonding, especially for people who had a pet in the past.
Myers said she knew one dementia patient who used to wander around the geriatric unit and not interact much with other patients.
“When the animal came in she had this huge smile on her face. She was more talking to the dog and telling her how beautiful she was and that she was really soft,” Myers said.
Between more visits from the dogs and her medicine, Myers said the lady opened up and was much more engaged.
She added that she recently started tracking how the animals improve behavior and patient satisfaction.
Intermountain also holds the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program at Broadwater and Radley elementary schools. In both schools third-grade students have the opportunity to read to an animal for 15 minutes at a time.
Students opt-in to the program, and Broadwater teacher Marilyn Barta said “of the ones that go, they’re very eager to go. It's just a really neat program for them to have that one on one time reading with the pets.”
Puotinen said other schools have expressed an interest in the program, but Intermountain doesn’t have enough volunteers to cover more schools.
Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Puotinen at 914-523-3063 or visit pettherapyhelena.com.