Local Organization Connects Canines & People for Healing

Photography Provided

Paws & ThinkNo one anticipated a life that would involve nationwide closures, lockdowns and self-quarantines, but when it became clear that the 2019 novel coronavirus posed a major health threat, schools, families, businesses and individuals had to quickly adjust to living life from the inside. Self-isolation means many in-person meetings are impossible, and organizations that serve the public’s mental health have been forced to think outside the box. One such organization is Paws & Think, a community-based nonprofit that brings joy and healing to more than 60 program partners including schools, libraries, detention centers, humane societies, hospitals, cancer support centers and elder care facilities.

The organization seeks to improve lives through the power of the human-dog connection, and finding ways to adhere to this mission was a tricky adjustment to make during the pandemic that has forced communities to socially isolate. Recognizing that mental health management is critical during this time, Paws & Think leaders have formulated alternative ways to serve the community in order to boost morale, ease stress and brighten spirits.

“We know that now more than ever, people are in need of the love and comfort a dog can bring,” says Kelsey Burton, executive director of Paws & Think.

For starters, the staff began creating and distributing activity books to hospital patients, teachers and other partners. Activities include crossword puzzles, word searches, and coloring sheets by local artist Gabriel Lehman.

Paws & Think representatives frequently visit the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, and when self-quarantining started the organization began filming prerecorded videos so that children can still see the therapy dogs. In the videos, the handler shares a personal message and the dog might do a trick, fetch a ball or simply stare into the camera looking cute. Paws & Think leaders are also filming videos for elder care facilities so patients can enjoy the company of their favorite four-legged friends.

“These folks are very lonely right now,” Burton says. “Some of them can’t even come outside their rooms.”

In addition, the staff has sent out greeting cards with pictures of therapy dogs on the front and a message on the inside reading, “Your therapy team sends you woofs and kisses.”

“We want them to know that someone is thinking about them because we know this is hard,” says Burton, adding that although meeting basic, everyday needs is important, mental health preservation during this difficult time is also crucial. “There is a huge need to combat the loneliness and sadness that comes with being alone, not to mention the uncertainty and upended routines. We want to make sure we are here to do what therapy dogs do best – bring love and comfort to those in need.”

Paws & ThinkThe organization also offers Paws to Read story time with a therapy dog. Though this event is usually held in person at libraries and schools, it has been offered via Facebook several times per week during social distancing. 

“There’s a big need for this now, with schools being closed,” Burton says. “Instead of the child reading to the therapy dog, the dog’s handler is reading to the children.”

Teachers are sharing these story times with their districts. Local mom Jodi Snell appreciates what Paws & Think leaders have done during the coronavirus outbreak to support the community. 

“Paws & Think has been an absolute gift to us during this time,” she says. “We’ve been able to take a break from the news and juggling e-learning while working from home, to enjoy story time with the adorable dogs as a family. Our boys felt super special when they were able to ask questions on the Facebook Live feed and hear back from the Paws & Think team. In addition, we were able to integrate the coloring sheets into our daily activities, and we love a good coloring contest.”

As the largest therapy dog organization in the nation, Paws & Think utilizes 130 therapy dogs of many breeds. Burton, a Westfield resident, has worked for national nonprofits for 20 years and is grateful to be able to help locally.

“This whole pandemic mess has been one of the reasons I love being local, because we’re able to quickly adapt to what our community needs,” she says. “The great thing about some of these programs we have implemented is that if we find people love them, we can continue them after normal life has resumed.”

Research has shown that simply touching a therapy animal’s fur can reduce stress hormones and increase endorphin hormones. Paws & Think handlers have witnessed this transformation time and again. Burton shares the story of a little girl at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital who was battling cancer. One day, when the Paws & Think therapy team showed up, the girl’s mom warned them that she had just endured several tests and was not feeling well.

“She’s not having it today,” the mom said. Yet when the girl saw her dog, she rolled over from facing the wall, got up, and came over to lay on top of the dog.

“She was shut down for the day, and that dog changed her attitude completely,” Burton says.

Paws & Think, Inc. is located at 1346 North Delaware Street in Indianapolis. To learn more and to make a donation, visit pawsandthink.org and call 317-520-2729.

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