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Helping Hands and Paws

By: Tracy Grinnell

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A sick child hugs her new best friend and her face beams with joy. For the moment her cancer is forgotten. Another child who has been acting out in school is learning to focus his attention on his new companion, and his teacher says his behavior is improving. By caring for his new friend, an elderly man is learning to cope with the loss of his wife and realizes how important his life still is. The new individual in these people's lives is not a next door neighbor, a child or a nurse. It's a warm, loving animal.

For the past 20 years, the Delta Society, based in Renton, Wash., has brought troubled souls and animals together and improved the lives of both. The organization helps hundreds of thousands of people each year via its vast research, programs and services, according to Lynnette Spanola, vice president of development and public relations for the Delta Society. Programs include Pet Partners, which trains volunteers and screens pets for participation in animal therapy programs in hospitals and nursing homes; Animal-Assisted Therapy Services, which helps healthcare facilities and trains professionals to establish effective programs; and the National Service Dog Center, which educates the public on how to interact with service dogs. And as far as animal therapy team members go, they have guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, goats, llamas, donkeys, potbellied pigs, cockatoos, African grey parrots and chickens within their ranks.

Through the society's Pet Partners program alone, Delta helps more than 350,000 people each year. "What's unique about the Delta Society," Spanola says, "is that there's no other national organization that does what we do in terms of improving human health through our therapy and service animals." She explains that because Delta trains volunteers and screens would-be therapy animals, Pet Partners members are much more effective and successful when they go into nursing homes, hospitals, schools, etc., than if they didn't have any training.

The Delta's founders – mainly veterinarians, doctors and university staff members – were originally intrigued by the dynamics of the relationships that formed between pet owners, pets and caregivers. (This is where the "delta" or "triangle" comes from.) They raised money to fund research detailing the affect of animals on people and how they positively affect personal health and well-being – even for people who are already sick or disabled. Once they built a solid reputation using credible research, the society began publishing educational books and developing programs for the public.

Spanola feels lucky to be working with an organization such as the Delta Society. The best part about her job, she says, is to know how much joy Delta brings to people, especially with their pet therapy/assistance programs. "I can really see the impact that our programs have on people," she says. "We give people the ability to share their love for their animals with others and, by doing this, we can brighten somebody's day like you wouldn't believe."

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