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Virtual Pet Visits

June 10, 2020

While stress is at an all-time high for many residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, one organization is using therapy pets to provide support to the community.

Pets on Wheels is a nonprofit which matches facilities in Maryland with volunteer pet therapy teams, free of charge. Most visits are made to residents in nursing homes, assisted living communities, hospitals and facilities for the physically and mentally challenged, but the group also services schools and libraries and responds to stressful situations within communities.

Sharon Stapf, Southern Maryland coordinator of Pet on Wheels, told The Enterprise the organization started in 1982 with a study regarding therapy pets easing loneliness for the homebound and eventually evolved into a pet therapy organization, serving most of Maryland including St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties. Owner of Sky and Callie, two certified therapy dogs, Stapf said the COVID-19 related shutdowns did not stop them from continuing to help people, along with many other volunteers, while also following social distancing guidelines.

When the state’s stay-at-home order was enacted, Stapf said they had to “get creative” with their response and started virtual visits “right away.” While Pets on Wheels was already visiting with the University of Maryland Medical Center, they tried their first virtual hour-long visit through their already-existing Zoom link.

“The first visit took some tweaking” and it was a challenge to get the animals to understand what was happening, she said, but adjustments were made and now three times a week, twice a day, a virtual pet therapy meeting is held at the medical center.

Stapf claimed “people loved it” and they got a lot of “good feedback and people are spreading the word.” She said recently there have been more requests for virtual sessions from the regular places they visit.

To protect privacy, the therapy pet teams cannot see patients, but the teams are seen and heard by patients and staff who sign in to the meeting. The liaison staff person relays questions or greetings to the pets via chat. Waves, smiles, wags and pet tricks are often involved.

In-person visits were often made at Discovery Commons Senior Living facility in California, but now Stapf said the group is planning a virtual session at the home on June 26, which is also National Take Your Dog to Work Day.

According to Kaitlin Roy, activities director at Discovery Commons, the facility will be hooking up video chat to a projector so residents can interact with the dog and the owner. She said when in-person visits were made prior to COVID-19, “everyone got excited” and would “swarm” out of their rooms to see the pets.

“It raises [the residents’] spirits and it makes them happy as animals usually do,” she said

At the La Plata branch of the Charles County library system, the first Paws to Read program began in April 2011, Leigh Batty, assistant branch manger, said in an email, and they have since “expanded the program to include our Waldorf West branch.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic closed library facilities, “we felt it was very important to continue connecting with and serving our community through virtual library programs,” Batty said.

Virtual Paws to Read will soon be offered on the third Wednesday of every month from 6 to 7:15 p.m. using Zoom and although the program is geared toward kids, adults are welcome to sign up as well, she said, adding, “We love this program.”

She said they use “a combination of Pet on Wheels therapy dogs as well as Charles County Humane Society certified therapy dogs for their in-person programs … we find it is a great way to encourage kids to read and help overcome shyness about reading out loud.”

Pets on Wheels was scheduled to visit the College of Southern Maryland’s Prince Frederick campus in May for stress relief sessions during finals, Natasha Miller, professional counselor on the campus, said during a Zoom interview, but after campuses closed for COVID-19, a virtual therapy pets session took its place.

Kellie Jamison, professional mental health counselor at the La Plata campus, said the session “went very well” and was a nice break from their typical Zoom meetings. She said the session lasted around an hour and about ten students participated.

“Students really enjoyed hearing the stories” about the animals, she said, which included several dogs and a rabbit.

Although the pet therapy session was not in-person as planned, Jennifer Fossell, a professional counselor at the Leonardtown campus, said, “It was still very beneficial,” and described the experience as “uplifting” and “heart-warming.”

Stapf made it clear the therapy pets are not service animals. Rather, owners volunteer with their pets, which must pass a temperament screening to be certified. Something interesting about the virtual meetings, she said, was non-therapy pets tend to wander into frame from time to time and appearances have been made by bearded dragons, birds and kittens that wouldn’t normally have been included. She said “more exotic [animals] from Baltimore” have been able to virtually visit Southern Maryland and vice-versa.

“It’s hard to explain social distancing to dogs. They did not understand at first that putting on their custom blue work vest did not mean a ride in the car to see the many friends they have at their facilities but instead meant sitting in front of the computer to make a visit,” Stapf said. “With a help of a few treats, however, they soon caught on and have even started to recognize the other therapy pets from other regions across the state that they have not met in person but see regularly now on the screen.”

In addition to the virtual visits, Pets on Wheels have been notes and cards to residents and staff at nursing homes and hospitals, as well as pictures, donations and even hand made paw print art and some volunteers are doing their own direct Skype visits.

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