“Have you met my therapist?” read Amanda Soliday’s shirt, beneath the image of a grinning pug.
At her feet sat an actual dog, Otis, a 6-year-old golden retriever. Together, Soliday and Otis are an animal therapy team. They regularly visit St. John’s Medical Center, the Children’s Learning Center, the Senior Center of Jackson Hole and other places around Jackson to let Otis work his magic on patients, children and seniors.
The pair are part of Teton County Pet Partners, an organization that formed in 1997 out of Teton County PAL, short for people, animals and love. Now associated with the national Pet Partners, the group trains people in animal-assisted therapy, a technique that harnesses the human-animal bond to improve the health and emotional well-being of recipients.
Soliday was one of the founding volunteers of the Teton County group. She recalled one visit to the hospital, when she knocked on the door of a woman who was crying to ask if she wanted to visit with a dog. The woman initially declined and continued to weep.
“‘Are you sure?’” Soliday asked her. “‘They can really help.’”
“So I came in, and she quit crying within 10 seconds and was talking and petting the dog,” Soliday said. “That’s a prime example of what it’s for.”
In addition to visiting people, the local Pet Partners also collaborates on other programs in the community, like “Read to a Dog” for second-graders at the public elementary schools. After reading to canines over the course of the school year, students’ reading levels jumped up. Nowadays, volunteers host the program at the Children’s Learning Center and Teton Literacy Center.
A half a dozen volunteers and their canine companions gathered Tuesday afternoon on the lawn of St. John’s Episcopal Church to educate others on the programs and work that they do. It was an opportunity for the public to meet the teams as well as a chance for interested dog owners to meet the group.
Any dog can become a therapy animal — cats, horses, llamas and birds can be certified as well — but those best suited to the task are naturally friendly and calm around other people.
Martha Maddox and Hazel, a 3 1/2-year-old Lab, have been volunteering at the hospital and Legacy Lodge at Jackson Hole each week for two years.
“When I got Hazel, at 8 months old, I realized she had a really wonderful temperament for it,” Maddox said. “You can train the dogs to be good for this, but she was pretty great right from the start. She just loves people.”
Hazel has also learned on the job how to read cues from the people she visits.
“She can really just walk into a room and know if someone just wants to give her a couple pets or if someone really needs more emotional support,” Maddox said.
Maddox first heard about therapy dogs from canine physical therapist Erin Downey, also a Pet Partners volunteer. As a part-time personal assistant, Maddox has the flexibility to spend her mornings at the hospital and Legacy Lodge.
For others, committing to a weekly volunteering schedule is a challenge.
Emily Bedrosian has been volunteering since 2009 and mostly does one-time gigs now that she has a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old to look after (humans, that is). Still, she and Chief, her 6-year-old Akita elkhound mix, manage to stay involved. Last summer they delighted students at Jackson Hole High School during finals week, and this summer they plan to make an appearance at Teton Behavior Therapy’s summer camp.
Bedrosian, in addition to Soliday and two other volunteers, also serves as an evaluator, testing and certifying new teams.
After potential handlers take an online course, they and their dogs are put through a series of tests and exercises designed to simulate a visit to a therapy recipient.
Evaluators look for basic obedience and how the dogs react to handler cues. They also test the dogs’ reactions to scenarios like crowds, angry yelling and over-exuberant petting.
It’s not only the dogs who are being tested, though.
“We’re looking for as much in the dog as in the handler,” Bedrosian said. “You need a handler that’s personable, paying attention and has a connection with the dog the whole time.”
Each year the evaluators test an average of six potential new teams. About three quarters of them pass and receive their certification. Since the ’90s the group has grown from a loose cadre of volunteers to an organized group of 36 certified teams.
At that size the organization requires someone to steer the ship. Kelly Chadwick has volunteered in the capacity of organizer, coordinating the schedules of each of the teams, for the last five years. One perk of the job, she said: “I get to see a lot of dogs.”
Tuesday’s meet-and-greet was the first the organization has hosted, but it might become an annual affair, Chadwick said.
For the future, Teton County Pet Partners will continue to serve the community and strive to improve the health and wellbeing of all its members.
“Hopefully we can continue to grow,” Chadwick said. “More programs and more teams, and then we can continue to spread the love.”