Pawsitive Friendships provides animal therapy to students with disabilities

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By Caleb Scott
Cronkite News

MESA – On a playground in Mesa, a group of children of various ages and abilities plays with several dogs and two miniature horses. Some run around with the animals while others just pet and hold them. This is animal therapy.

Once a month, the Arizona organization Pawsitive Friendships brings therapy animals to A Place 4 Everyone Learning Center, a school to help students with physical, social and emotional issues.

Pawsitive Friendships was founded in 2014 when the founder and CEO, Tosha Tharp-Gaitanis, discovered that exercise routines with her son, who has autism, were more productive when the family dog was part of the sessions. “I’m not a therapist, I’m not a teacher, just a mom with a passion to have others succeed like my son did,” Tharp-Gaitanis said.

Facilities with educational and clinical day programs for people with special needs, from early childhood to adult, contract with Pawsitive Friendships to bring trained animals and handler teams to work with individuals at their facilities. Tharp-Gaitanis says the 2023 goal for Pawsitive Friendships was to serve 1,500 kids and the company has already helped over 1,600 kids in 22 different facilities.

When the animals arrived at A Place 4 Everyone Learning Center, the children seemed immediately calmer, an observation confirmed by the instructors at the center who said the animals help children express themselves with a more tranquil demeanor and consider their actions before lashing out.

“The connection is all body language. It teaches them how to use that body language throughout their whole lives in their day-to-day,” said Karen Shields, senior manager at A Place 4 Everyone Learning Center. “It’s extremely impressive how the animals are able to bring that out more than we are as humans with our spoken language.”

Shields has found that the kids interact more with the animals. “It’s a deep down soul want-to connect,” she said.

Behavior therapist Danyelle Tarlowski, from Arizona Autism, helps children with autism learn appropriate behaviors at home and in public. “We can use the animals to say, ‘Hey the dog is sitting nicely, let’s sit nicely,’” said Tarlowski. “A lot of times we use friends and peers to show behaviors that are good and in this case, we use the animals.”

Tori Rimmer, a staff member at A Place 4 Everyone Learning Center, said that she notices a change in the children’s behavior the rest of the day after Pawsitive Friendships visits. She adds that the children immediately begin to look forward to the next time the animals will visit.

The company currently has over 115 animals and has expanded to over 10 different species,including dogs, birds, horses, snakes and even an alpaca.

The therapy animals have to be at least 1 year old, have lived with the owner for at least 8 months, be up to date on their vaccinations and pass a behavior assessment. The owners of the animals need to have fingerprint clearance and be able to advocate for the animal.

Two of the miniature horses, Dante and Daphne, are owned by Roger and Arlene Lewis. Roger Lewis said that the horses need to maintain a calm disposition and demeanor. “They cannot react to anything, that’s what makes them a therapy horse. You could shoot off an air horn here, they’d stay like this.”

Pawsitive Friendships is currently accepting volunteer applications on their website.

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Pawsitive Friendships volunteer Sheila Tufano and her French bulldog, Winston, playing with students. (Photo by Hunter Fore/Cronkite News)

A Place 4 Everyone Learning Center staff member Tori Rimmer and student engage with therapy miniature horses Dante and Daphne. (Photo by Hunter Fore/Cronkite News)

Therapy dog Suki and a student go down the slide at A Place 4 Everyone Learning Center. (Photo by Hunter Fore/Cronkite News)