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Small Daily Differences

Boy and catPaws for People is one of many initiatives at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts that is focused on making an impact in the community.


From just outside the room, one hears a soft murmur of delight as Fancy enters, accompanied by Pet Partner Deb Gibbs. The voice belongs to Harold, an elderly resident of Knollwood Nursing Home in Worcester, Massachusetts. Harold—dressed in a snazzy green shirt and clearly anticipating this visit—sits on the edge of his bed and reaches over to pat Fancy. "Man's best friend," he croons as he strokes the English pointer's head and reminisces about the mixed breeds he once owned. One of them, he says, followed the family to church one Sunday and sang along from outside as the organ began to play. It's a story Harold loves to tell, notes Knollwood Activities Director Joanne Dattis, who accompanies Gibbs and Fancy on their rounds.

Gibbs, a radiology teaching technician and supervisor at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals, is on the steering committee of Paws for People, a group of Cummings School and community members that coordinates animal-assisted activity and therapy. They work in conjunction with the Delta Society, a national organization promoting therapeutic connections between animals and people. Shrewsbury resident Harue Midtmoen started this local animal therapy program at the suggestion of Dr. Gary Patronek, then director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy. She ran it on her own for years until Cummings formed a steering committee and formalized it as Paws for People.

As we make the rounds at Knollwood, we learn about some of the elderly residents we've met. Martha never used to respond to Fancy, but now she touches the dog, has begun to utter a few words, and even manages an occasional smile in its presence. Anna has been terrified of dogs all her life, but now allows Fancy to come into the room and sit quietly during Gibbs's visit. In a later visit with Gibbs's Shih Tzu puppy, Anna will muster the courage to hold it—a huge step. Even with some of the toughest challenges, the human-animal bond always seems to shine through.

PAWSing to READ

Amanda Diurba, children's librarian at the North Grafton branch public library, has seen that bond produce similar breakthroughs with a very different audience. In 2005 the library became a certified provider of the Delta Society's Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) Program, which aims to boost reading self-confidence and ability in elementary schoolchildren. The North Grafton program, one of the venues that Paws for People supports, has served almost 90 children from surrounding towns. Diurba, a devout animal lover and former teacher, says, "The children's exuberance in reading and the degree of turnaround in their abilities is nothing short of miraculous; I've never seen anything like it."

Nursing home

Residents of Knollwood Nursing Home bond with Fancy.

Once a week for six weeks, a handful of kids sit on comfy cushions on the floor in the library and read to their therapy dogs—or, in recent programs, to Ghost, a mellow therapy cat that adopted Sarah Perlmutter, V08, five years ago. The animals, calm and nonjudgmental, remain still and look reasonably attentive for 30 minutes. The animals' partners sometimes coach the reading ("Ghost seems a little confused; can you explain that word?") and now and then pull out a treat for young readers to offer to their listeners. The kids relax, focus on their reading, show the pictures to the animals, and have a ball.

At a recent session, Cummings veterinary technician Maggie Platt brings Cider, an enormous 3 ˝-year-old Greater Swiss Mountain dog that plops down on the sofa waiting for her young friend to arrive. Percy, Callie, and Gracie all head for their spots. As they enter the room, the kids circulate among the animals to say hi. Then Perlmutter arrives, bundling Ghost against the bitter early-evening cold. She opens her coat and the kids flock around, chattering and petting "Ghostie," who blinks and purrs. He, like every Delta-certified animal, has the temperament and training to take it all in stride: stroking, patting, childlike tail- or ear-pulling, and the presence of other animals, even those not certified by Delta.

Dr. Annette Rauch, faculty advisor to Paws for People, explains that the group's mission is threefold. The most obvious: providing services to various populations in the community by matching certified pets and their partners with institutions such as nursing homes, hospitals, and homes for troubled youth. Another goal is to encourage students to conduct research in the field of animal therapy and document its benefits. This initiative also plants seeds that will bear fruit throughout the students' careers as they encourage therapeutic animal-human relationships in the communities where they live and practice. Among those seeds, she says, is the spirit of compassion "for all living things on the planet, human and non-human. And bringing a dog or cat into an institution to visit with people who may have had their own animal in their previous lives, but now live with no animal contact, really does promote compassion."

Active Citizenship as Learning

Paws for People is just one of the Cummings School groups joining forces in a fledgling organization to enable them to share information and resources, collaborate on complementary or overlapping missions, and seek funding together. Each group, however, will retain its individual identity, touching the community in its own unique ways. The broader aim of this initiative, conceived by Dr. Mary Rose Paradis, is to develop a cohesive institution-wide approach to active citizenship and community outreach as integral components of learning. It's a view of veterinary education that encompasses leadership development with an eye towards encouraging veterinary students to become a force for education and outreach in the communities they will serve as professionals.

"Service is almost innate to a veterinarian," says Paradis. "But there's professional service and there's community service. And sometimes it's outside your profession that you get some of your best rewards." She notes that many incoming students already know they want to perform community service. Others, over time, connect the dots among their innate attributes, the skills they're learning, and the ways they can combine them in service to others.

Dr. Jean Poulson, faculty advisor for the budding Pet Hospice Program, looks forward to offering an elective hospice rotation to students through this new organization, yet to be named. With these kinds of educational opportunities, Cummings students are gaining hands-on and face-to-face experience with a unique client-side perspective that complements what they're learning in clinics. This balance will help them become more effective veterinarians equipped with strong communication and interpersonal skills. And their organizational involvement, including both professional and citizen outreach, is sharpening their leadership skills. As veterinarians they will be uniquely positioned to advance the bigger picture of the interrelationships among animals, people, and the environment within their communities and in society in general. And the bigger picture, says Paradis, is what it's all about: "To reflect on what you're doing and why. Why are you performing that service? Is there something we can do to stop it from being a necessity? You start to understand and address the underlying issues."


Profile written by Leslie Limon

Photos by Tufts University Photo

This story will appear in the Spring 2007 issue of Tufts Veterinary Medicine. It ran online on March 19, 2007.