In the eyes of Pawsitive Friendships, dogs – and pigs and goats and other animals – can be a child’s best friend.
The East Valley nonprofit has a menagerie at its disposal to help children with special needs achieve their therapy goals – and sometimes bring joy to hospital patients and nursing home residents.
Pawsitive Friendship therapy animals have worked with more than 300 children in and schools.
Tosha Tharp was inspired to start the animal assistance therapy program in 2014 after seeing how the family’s French Bulldog helped her son, who was diagnosed with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome when he was 4.
One day when Tharp was struggling to work with her son on his home exercises, he asked if their French bulldog Zoe could participate.
Tharp was shocked to discover how much more receptive he was when Zoe joined them.
He started achieving his goals more quickly than before with Zoe’s involvement. She trained Zoe as a therapy dog and they eventually became a registered pet therapy team through Pet Partners.
Tharp’s household currently includes four French bulldogs Zoe and Jacques as well as two pigs, Penelope and Paxton.
Both dogs and Penelope, a potbelly pig, are certified for therapy while 7-month-old Paxton, a Juliana Pig, is still in training.
Currently 65 trained animals and their owners work with Pawsitive Friendships and many also volunteer at hospitals and nursing homes.
The therapy animals might work in two settings, one-on-one clinical sessions and larger group educational events.
In one-on-one sessions, “the therapist runs their session as normal and then we’re kind of like the extra tool in the toolbox,” Tharp said.
Before a session begins, Tharp trains with the therapists and office staff.
“Once they kind of really get the idea of how these dog toys can be used to work towards the same skills they’re working on without the dog, they really embrace it. Once it clicks, you almost can’t unsee it,” said Tharp. “It’s like a never-ending cycle that you’re always finding new ways to incorporate the animals into therapy.”
In addition to dogs, Pawsitive Friendships turns to other such as pigs, miniature horses and goats. Tharp says this helps children who may not get on as well with dogs.
“Some kids are afraid of dogs,” said Tharp. “But if we bring the mini horses in, or a bird, they’re all over it.”
Pawsitive Friendships recently enlisted an alpaca, though it only managed to visit one school before campuses in Arizona were shut down.
Both clinical and educational sessions last about an hour, though in the latter the animals interact with multiple children. At schools, therapy animals will often spend 20 to 25 minutes in three different classrooms.
Tharp says that a primary difference between Pawsitive Friendships and other therapy animal organizations is her group provides a different environment for both children and animals.
While most therapy dogs used by other groups must remain on their best behavior waiting to be petted, Pawsitive Friendships’ dogs can be off their leashes and run and play with the children.
Tharp has developed an internal curriculum for Pawsitive Friendships, which includes motor skills, cognitive development and social emotional language.
“Not every animal will be able to do all of those things,” says Tharp. “So, I plan the lesson based on what the animal can do, and what the kids or what that school is really needing to focus on.”
While she currently works with 55 volunteers, Tharp said she is always looking for more.
And not all volunteers have to have an animal. Volunteers without them attend events with handlers and provide an extra set of hands.
As with most Arizona organizations, Pawsitive Friendships has largely shut down with quarantine restrictions, but offered virtual story times so children could at least see the animals.
Volunteers read books alongside them and the videos are posted on the website.
Tharp says she is amazed by how far they have come since working with her son and Zoe.
“It’s always amazing to me when I go and talk to the therapists, they say how well it’s been working with the kid,” said Tharp. “I can’t even believe that what was working with my son.
“Zoe is now working for 300-plus children and still growing and it’s all because of me and my son and what we were doing at home. It just baffles me that it’s done so well. I knew it could but it’s just one of those when you when you see it and you see all the differences made in the kids’ lives, it’s really amazing.”