Anyone who knows me knows that my cats are like my children. Sure, they wake me up at 5 am to eat and are (slightly) destructive, but they are also loving and always making me laugh. Most people who have or have had pets can probably relate, whether it be cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, snakes, lizards, or fish. Even if you didn’t grow up with an animal in your home, chances are that if you pass by a dog on the street, you couldn’t help but smile. Animals can have that positive and healing effect on people, which is essentially the idea behind PAWS for People.

PAWS for People, as stated on their website, is a nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic visits to various individuals and organizations in the community that can benefit from an interaction with well-trained, loving pet. To discuss their mission and benefits of pet therapy further, I had the opportunity to interview Clarice Ritchie, the Executive Director for PAWS for People.

1. What is PAWS for people?

PAWS is a non-profit organization that has the mission to bring healing pet therapy visits to anyone in the community. We have around 500 volunteers in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We call them Pet Therapy teams, which is the person and their personal pet, who they are certified and trained with to do visitation. We have a lot of different types of programs. We work with elders, children, people with disabilities, but really go anywhere where people may need that special connection that a pet can help them improve their quality of life. Some of these locations include senior centers, schools, and offices.

We also have a PAWS for Reading program, where children who are just learning to read or may be struggling to read and are nervous to do so aloud, can come and practice to a PAWs pet. However, we have definitely seen a shift since the pandemic in the types of requests of visit, as the focus has become more around mental wellness and social-emotional learning in schools.

2. Are there any myths or misconnections about pet therapy?

One misconception is the confusion between a service dog, an emotional support dog and a therapy dog. There are many different types of working dogs and sometimes people may confuse them. Service and emotional support dogs are trained to support one person and are really not supposed to interact with other people, as their focus should be on that person. Whereas a therapy animal is trained to support everyone, and the person and pet are trained together as a team.

A therapy dog also does not fall under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means we cannot take them on an airplane as a service pet. Also, unlike service and emotional support animals, they have tags on their collars that say “please pet me.” So, while it is always good to ask before approaching, this is a good indicator that you can (and are meant to) interact with and pet these animals.   

3. What are some benefits to pet therapy?

There are definitely physical benefits that we know of, such as stabilizing blood pressure, reducing risk of heart disease, slowing the breathing of those who are anxious, releasing good hormones like serotonin and diminishing pain awareness. Emotionally, it helps people make a connection and focus on something else and allows them to relax. When we go into events for de-stress, you can watch the expressions on people’s faces change when they see the animals. It can provide a needed distraction, as well as unconditional love.  

We are also seeing in schools now where we are asked to come in and provide support for kids that are struggling. Kids come to school these days with a lot of baggage and can really use the help to get in a place where learning is even possible and they can really focus on it. Pet therapy has been able to help with that, to get them settled, focused and ready to learn. We also work with kids that are struggling to walk, but with the therapy dog, you put a second leash on them and suddenly the kids are walking alongside. It is a way to shift the thinking from “I have to take a step” to “I get to walk a dog,” which really helps.

4. How would someone get involved with PAWS for people?

On the PAWS for People website there is a tab at the top that says “Volunteer”, where there are both options to volunteer with your pet or volunteer without your pet. We could definitely use more pet therapy volunteers, especially volunteers that have daytime availability.

If you are interested in joining PAWS with your pet, go to  https://www.pawsforpeople.org/get-involved/. PAWS for People also offers obedience, therapy dog and target training, which are all through experienced PAWS dog trainers. If you don’t have a pet or even if you do and are interested in volunteering in another capacity (such as helping out in the office), you can fill out and submit this form: https://www.pawsforpeople.org/volunteer-application/

5. Is there anything else you would like the audience to know?

For me, having been with PAWS for 9 years, it has been such an incredible journey of watching the connection that animals can make when people can’t. There is such great power in that. I look at some of our programs with children with autism, that struggle with person-to-person communication, but are able to communicate with people through a pet. Or when visiting an assisted living facility with Alzheimer’s patients, where an individual didn’t remember the family member’s name, but always remembers that name of the dog and then begins telling stories of past childhood pets. It helps make that connection and make the individual feel a part of things. We also have people who don’t normally speak and then suddenly are saying “hey, I want to pet that dog.” The healing and engagement pet therapy can bring – it is truly magical.

Guest Blogger: Clarice Ritchie, Executive Director, PAWS for People

Clarice Ritchie joined staff of PAWS for People in August of 2014 as the Coordinator for Community Engagement, and in 2023 became the Executive Director. She brings over 25 years of nonprofit experience in program administration, fundraising and finance. Clarice has thoroughly enjoyed working with the amazing PAWS volunteers to share the special impact that PAWS Pet Therapy has in our local community. After many years of volunteering in programs with both animals and people with special needs, Clarice is thrilled to have found a position where she can turn her passion into a profession.