A Teen Handler’s Perspective

I have always loved animals. I was the kid looking to pet every dog I passed, knowing to let it sniff my hand first. In preschool, my favorite activity was visiting our local farm and feeding the goats, peacocks, and emu. By the time I began kindergarten, I had started saving birthday and chore money in a “dog fund,” with the dream of eventually getting my own dog. Throughout elementary school, I knew every show on Animal Planet, to the point where my sisters and parents thought I was crazy. Finally, when I reached the age of nine, my parents agreed it was time for a dog and we brought home Scout, an adorable Goldendoodle puppy. In the years since he joined our family, Scout has been my constant companion.

When I reached middle school, my parents encouraged me to find a way to give back to my community. I wanted to incorporate my love for animals with my service activity. My mom and I had seen a therapy team in action at our local library and I became interested in the possibility of becoming a team with Scout. Community service–an activity that I previously thought of more as punishment than fun–became much more appealing at the thought of being able to work with my dog.

With my mom’s help, I started researching pet therapy organizations. Pet Partners allowed handlers as young as ten with parent supervision and my parents liked the teaching and mentoring aspects of the organization. We contacted Tufts Paws for People, a Community Partner for Pet Partners in Massachusetts, and, at the age of 12, I attended the Pet Partners Handler Course. I trained with Scout over the next few months and when I was 13, Scout and I passed our evaluation. It was at this point that I met Deb Gibbs, the Program Coordinator for Tufts Paws for People, and she became my mentor. As part of the process, I shadowed Deb and her dog, Boo, on their visits to an assisted living facility. Being a therapy team and the responsibilities that came along with it were new to me, and Deb helped me become more comfortable with visiting and taught me how to understand my animal’s body language.

Once we completed the mentoring process, Scout and I began visiting an assisted living facility once a month with Deb, Boo, and a couple of other teams. At first, I was nervous to visit. I was barely a teenager and wasn’t used to interacting with elderly people who weren’t my grandparents. However, being a young face in an assisted living facility, I found that I was able to communicate with seniors in a unique way. The residents took a special interest in me and I enjoyed listening to their stories and advice. As our visits continued, I became more relaxed and I could see that our visits had a positive impact on them. The regulars told me that they would look forward to our monthly visits, and some would even come out from their rooms just to see Scout and me.

Unfortunately, as I became more comfortable visiting, Scout became more unpredictable around strangers. We had never had a problem during our visits, but after speaking with Deb about Scout’s behavior, we decided that Scout should no longer continue as a therapy dog.

I was devastated. I had invested eighteen months into the program, and had grown close with the residents, Deb, and the other teams. When I thought of other community service activities, nothing compared. I knew there were other ways to be involved with the organization, but visiting with the residents alongside my dog was what I loved the most.

Around this time, my family had been thinking of getting another pet. We didn’t think another dog would be the right fit with Scout, and we have cat allergies in our family. After a lot of research, we settled on adopting a rabbit from our local shelter. Ella was a six-year-old black and white mini lop. The staff at the animal shelter raved about her sweet disposition and said she loved to be held. We were hopeful that Ella and I could be a therapy team, but even if she wasn’t, we knew she was the right pet for our family.

Shortly after we brought Ella home, I began working with Ella on the skills needed to pass the evaluation. I wasn’t familiar with how to handle a rabbit, and it took time for me to learn how to hold Ella securely and understand her body language. I recruited my two younger sisters and friends to help with familiarizing Ella with being passed from person to person and staying on someone’s lap. After training for six months (the required waiting period), Ella and I passed our evaluation. I was fourteen and a freshman in high school.

Ella and I have been a team for over two years now. We visit assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, and psychiatric facilities. We attend stress relief events at local colleges, a medical school, and dental school. We met with a local Brownie troop to discuss pet care and our work as a therapy team, and we helped another Brownie troop earn their Pet Badge.

Being a rabbit, Ella is inherently less threatening than dogs. Her soft fur makes even the less-enthusiastic residents want to pet her. Since Ella is small and likes to be held, I am able to place her on people’s laps, which allows for a more personal interaction.

There are many people who Ella and I have visited who have touched me. Several months ago, Shirley, one of our regular visitors at an assisted living facility, shared with me that her son had passed away that week, but she came out of her room just to see Ella and me. Simone, a 99-year-old assisted living resident, attends every one of our visits. In her French accent, she tells me about her love for animals and her own past pets. Donna and Carol, two residents confined to their beds, love having Ella rest in bed with them. They tell me how much our visits mean to them. Eric is a boy about my age who experienced a traumatic brain injury. He loves animals and even though he has limited movement, he enjoys petting Ella. It’s as if Ella can sense his gentleness, and she sprawls out on his lap during our visits. At the college stress relief events, Ella has become somewhat of a celebrity and has made it onto many social media platforms.

In my experience as a handler, I have learned how to advocate for my pet. At one college event, a non-Pet Partners adult handler came over to introduce her dog to Ella without warning. She assured me that her dog liked rabbits, but I could tell by Ella’s body language that she was nervous, so I had to tell her that Ella wasn’t comfortable, and I quickly moved Ella away from her dog.

Being a handler has also helped me mature. I need to coordinate with facility staff to plan our visits when Ella and I are visiting on our own. When I volunteer with an evaluator, I am treated like the other adult volunteers. Managing our visits with my school and sports schedules can be challenging. I’ve grown more comfortable interacting with people of all ages through visits, Paws for People events, and all aspects of the program. Now that I am 16, Ella and I can visit on our own. At our recent renewal evaluation, we earned a Complex rating and can visit complex environments.

Through my work as a handler, I have realized the power of the human-animal connection. I see firsthand the positive effect that Ella has on the people we visit. Whether it’s a college student stressed about finals or a senior citizen who is experiencing loneliness or loss, petting Ella helps them relax and lifts their mood. Ella also allows me to connect with people. When petting her, the residents open up to me about their own lives.

I will leave for college in September 2019, when Ella will be 10 years old. While I likely will only be able to take Ella on visits during school breaks, I plan to remain involved with Pet Partners, possibly coordinating stress relief events at the college I attend. When I’m an adult, I plan to be a Pet Partners team with my future pets, because I have seen and felt the positive effects that animal-assisted therapy has on myself and others.

Story provided by Kate Gutilla