Wagging tails, tongues and a belly rub may be what the doctor ordered.
HALO " Human Animal Link of Oklahoma " is a newly founded animal-assisted therapy program that provides its services to elementary schools, clinics and anywhere else they're needed, said Terri Smith, executive director.
HALO began after Smith and her German shepherd, Shana, had passed all the criteria to be an animal-assisted therapy team. At the time, Smith was working as a special-education instructor for Yukon Public Schools and was interested in studying alternative methods of turning negative behavior into positive in students, she said.
One day, after a little persuasion from her principal, Smith brought Shana to school to introduce to her students. Through Shana, the kids successfully learned exercises involving skills like memory, which can often be difficult for special-ed students.
"Before, the students couldn't remember a three-step process, but they could remember it with Shana," Smith said.
After retiring from Yukon Public Schools, she started HALO with just two volunteers. Today, the group has 43 animal assisted therapy teams and continues to grow.
In addition to being the executive director of the Oklahoma-based foundation, Smith also evaluates every animal team that is interested in participating. Although animal therapy training is a nice addition to your furry friend's résumé, it isn't necessary, she said.
"With our animals, if they're born with the right temperament, they don't have to have a diploma," Smith said.
She ensures participating animals are very obedient and without any sign of a barking problem. The animals visit a variety of places such as public libraries, children's hospitals and assisted living centers. The teams are all certified, and both animals and owners must show their certification when entering places of business, she said.
Donnita Brown and her Great Pyrenees, Sunshine, found out about HALO after graduating from K-9 University, an obedience school in Oklahoma City. Sunshine's friendly attitude impressed her trainers, who suggested therapy training to Brown.
After Sunshine and Brown were admitted as a team to HALO, the pair started volunteered at the library. Now they have found a permanent home at the Pauline E. Mayer Emergency Children's Shelter.
"(The kids) deserve to feel special. This program is teaching them they can succeed. It's something special to them," Brown said.
Marlene Goodrich, recreational therapist at Pauline E. Mayer, said children who go to the shelter are often admitted by court decision because of allegations of abuse and neglect in the home. Most of the time, the shelter has between 30 to 35 children and provides them with food, clothing, shelter and medical attention if necessary.
"It's almost universal that kids love animals. A lot of the children are missing their pets and enjoy doing special things with the therapy pets," Goodrich said.
She said the animal therapy program provides an opportunity for the children to examine their own personal behavior.
"It gives them a chance to recognize that the dog can choose between bad and good," she said.
The children at the center typically think of the animal visits just as a chance to pet, and often don't realize they're achieving therapy goals, Goodrich said.
Although HALO has a majority of animal therapy dogs, there are other animals, like Rocket the therapy horse.
Rocket and owner Carl Martin have been very successful in therapy breakthroughs with children, he said. During the session, a child has to learn teamwork with the horse, and walk with Rocket and his unique rhythm.
"You have to learn to transcend and be part of a team," Martin said. "With an aggressive child, the aggression doesn't work, and withdrawal doesn't work. You have to go into that area of, 'Can we trust each other?'"
In order for the horse to respond, Smith said a child has to drop any defensive mechanisms that may be caused by a stressful home situation, neglect or problems in school.
"We provide an opportunity," Martin said. "One event can change a person's whole life."
Goodrich said the therapy program is a unique way to reach out to those in need.
"It's a good teaching tool," she said. "The kids hear things all day from adults. If the lesson can come from the pet, all of a sudden it's not so bad." "Jamie Birdwell