Arlington Fellowship Health Resources Inc, a nonprofit mental health and substance abuse treatment agency, is working in conjunction with the Animal Welfare League of Arlington to provide and expand a Pet Therapy program that has become popular with the agency’s members.
FHR Mental Health Counselor Sarah James grew up around pet-assisted therapy animals, and when she decided to bring her cat along with her on shifts, the clients had such positive reactions that it inspired her to create the Pet Therapy program. Since then, she has organized weekly sessions for the members of the Intensive Community Residential Treatment. The ICRT serves those with more severe cases of mental illness and the animals help to calm them and provide further opportunities for socialization.
"The first few weeks were rough, because the clients are never interested in starting something new because of anxiety," said James, "But now they all look forward to it so much. It’s really become a success."
The program relies on the volunteers and pet therapy certified animals of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington. The volunteers bring a variety of pets, including dogs, cats, and guinea pigs, to the members of the ICRT, and the animals become companions and sources of affection. Clients take the dogs on walks, teach the animals tricks, and have conversations with the volunteers about their animal-assisted therapy pets and how to care for them. The therapy is most appreciated by members who have trouble with verbal communication, a skill that is not needed to connect with animals.
"One of the most important things the therapy brings the clients is the nonverbal communication," said James. "We once had a client that didn’t speak at all, and he took to the dogs amazingly. Here was something that he could really communicate with, and he couldn’t do that with us. Many of the clients also have paranoid delusions that can make the world a scary and dangerous place, but those delusions don’t seem to be put onto the animals. They’re seen as a safe thing they can connect with."
Along with the weekly sessions, James is trying to expand the therapy and bring in other monthly programs. One of the most successful is an event in which volunteers and show dog owners set up an obstacle course for the dogs in the backyard of one of the IRCT group houses. Members from many different FHR programs are able to run the course with the dogs, and learn how to lead them through many different tricks and jumps. It is also an opportunity for attendees to meet and socialize with volunteers and other members of the community.
"It’s like a little party." James said, "It’s a great way for the members to socialize, connect with the animals and other people and just have fun."
The FHR is still working to further develop and spread the Pet Therapy program to many different sites, and more volunteers from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington and beyond are always needed and appreciated. The therapy sessions are every Sunday at 2 p.m. at the IRCT group homes. For more information about the Fellowship Health Resources Inc. and the program, visit www.fellowshiphr.org