Craig Heeling Friends is in the process of training animal/handler teams to visit area patients and residents.
The visitation program is modeled after a successful program in place at the Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.
Four dog/handler teams are currently preparing to be evaluated for the program this month. The program is not limited to dogs, but is open to any domestic species of animal.
"We usually see dogs, but we could use cats, rabbits, llamas, even sheep," said Shannan Koucherik, coordinator of the program.
Human-animal interactions are known to provide numerous benefits to adults and children both in a variety of human care facilities, according to the Delta Society Pet Partners program.
Some of these benefits include an increased empathy, more of an outward focus, and mental stimulation due to increased socialization. The animals also may entertain and relax the individuals they visit.
Koucherik said there are 22 exercises designed to evaluate the animal and the handler's skills and aptitude for the program. She said that prior to this evaluation, she holds a pre-screening training class during which time she watches for behaviors that may not be appropriate for the program's objectives. If the team passes that class, they then move on to the evaluation.
After the evaluation, the teams go on to participate in a handler's workshop, which covers such issues as sanitary regulations. Koucherik is currently working on guidelines with Rebecca Warren, a registered nurse and patient care planner at The Memorial Hospital.
The program asks a commitment of a minimum of two visits per month, year round, for a certification period of two years.
The Memorial Hospital and Horizons require liability insurance prior to making visits to patients and clients. Pet Partners' registration fee of $55 includes liability insurance covering the team for the two-year commitment during any visit that is made to any facility. The cost of the handler's workshop is $25.
Total initial expense to the volunteer is approximately $150. This includes the cost of a Delta Society vest, which is required for the animal's visitation, as well as routine health care and vaccinations.
Koucherik said the goal of pet visitation is to enhance the quality of life for those who are visited. There are not specific treatment goals and the program should not be confused with animal-assisted therapy.
The next set of screening classes and evaluations will be held in the fall.
For more information about the pet visitation program, contact Shannan Koucherik at 824-9518.
Christine and Stephanie Balderston and golden retriever, Aspen, check out the vest Aspen will wear after her evaluation. The Balderstons and Aspen will be one of the first teams in the new pet visitation program.