“Usually, what we wind up with is as soon as we walk in the door and the kids are there, most of them have just got these great big smiles on their faces. It’s remarkable. It’s absolutely remarkable,” Stew Cutler, a member of the Ramapo-Bergen Animal Refuge Inc. (RBARI) Board of Trustees, said while describing the non-profit animal shelter’s dog therapy program, Paws In Hand, also referred to as Paws.
According to its website, RBARI was founded in 1978 after two animal rescue organizations – the Bergen Animal Rescue, Inc. of Teaneck and the Ramapo Animal Refuge, Inc. of Oakland – merged to form one permanent shelter in Oakland for homeless dogs that had no one to care for them.
About 10 years ago, Paws was founded by an RBARI trainer aiming to provide pet therapy to students with special needs with the goal of socializing shelter dogs, while enriching the lives of the students.
After holding two programs in just The Windsor Learning Center – a K-12 special education school in Pompton Lakes – as of one year ago, the Paws program now operates in four additional schools, including Hawthorne High School, Indian Hills High School, Wayne Hills High School and Bergen County Special Services in Paramus.
Cutler is one of the volunteers responsible for the program’s expansion. Having been a RBARI volunteer since 2010 and a Paws volunteer since 2016, Cutler approached other New Jersey schools to implement the dog therapy sessions.
“It just seemed like such a worthwhile program,” said Cutler.
According to the RBARI website, when children interact with animals, it can increase their independence, improve social development and help their communication skills. Bonding with animals also teaches kindness – another goal of the Paws program.
Program volunteers will bring social, well-trained dogs into classrooms for approximately one hour per week for each group of students. The first week consists of teaching the students about the dogs’ backgrounds and how to properly approach and greet them. The following week, depending on the students’ levels of involvement, Paws volunteers will teach the students how to train the dogs to sit, roll over and how to reward the dogs with treats. The last week is dedicated to playing games with the dogs.
These activities highlight listening skills, responsibility and social interaction, benefitting both the students and the dogs.
Cutler said, “Any kind of socialization that you can give the dog makes [it] more adoptable. As long as [the dog] becomes more comfortable with the other dogs…and with the children and the teachers and with the handlers, it is pretty good for the dog.”
Activities vary depending on the students’ abilities and willingness to participate, but growth and development are just two of the intended outcomes that volunteers hope come to fruition through the students. If the students do not want to engage in the program’s activities, they can also just sit and pet the dogs.
“One of the students didn’t talk for four weeks… he was very distant,” said Cutler. “The fourth week of the program, he thanked [one of the dog handlers] and asked if she would come back next week. [The handler] was in tears.”
Tom Keyser, one of the Paws program coordinators who works in conjunction with Cutler to recruit schools and volunteers, recounted a story about one of the more non-verbal students involved in the program.
“I asked, ‘Wouldn’t you like to teach this puppy how to sit? You’ve known her all year.’ And, [the student] locked his gaze on me, and I looked at him. He looked down at the dog, and he goes, ‘Sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit.’ [The dog] plopped down like a ton of bricks,” Keyser said. “Then, [the student] looked at me and he went: ‘Paw, paw, paw, paw, paw, paw, paw,’ and he stuck his hand out, and the dog plopped her paw in his hand. [The student’s] face lit up like the sun.”
One month later, at a school-held luncheon hosted to thank the Paws volunteers, Keyser discovered that when the student said, “sit” and “paw,” it had been his first time speaking in school for his entire tenure there.
“Suddenly, these children begin to feel like they’ve accomplished something not only because they’ve helped the dogs, but also because they’ve grown,” said Keyser.
Keyser said as time progresses, volunteers hear more stories about the impact Paws has had on the students’ lives, whether it is helping them get over their fear of dogs, or providing them with a means to come out of their shell. And that goes for the dogs, too.
The Paws program grants the shelter dogs the opportunity to spend time outside of the confined space of their cage in the kennel and relieve stress. By spending more time in an environment with a multitude of different people, the dogs become less scared and more social, making them more adoptable.
Keyser said, “When [the dogs] go to an environment where you have children of all ages, different shapes, different sizes, different complexions, different nationalities, different voice tones, different hair color, [the dogs] suddenly begin to realize that all these differences are not threatening. And little by little, the dogs become less stressed, a little bit anxious and less scared.”
The program’s success is evident in that all of the dog’s involved in Paws have been adopted, with the exception of those that are still new to the program, according to Megan Brinster, the executive director of RBARI.
In order to become a volunteer, Paws requires the attendance of a general orientation session consisting of learning about the program’s expectations, shelter rules, and the fundamentals of how to properly walk and handle a dog. The volunteers who wish to proceed with the program will then observe a Paws class.
“It’s not too much of a crazy training process, but it does allow people to feel comfortable both with the dogs and in the school environment,” said Brinster. “And, we have some really awesome Paws volunteers that help guide everyone along in the process.”
In order to continue expanding, Brinster said Paws needs more volunteers to help with coordinating the classrooms, traveling with and handling the dogs.
Volunteer applications can be found on the RBARI website, and all volunteers must be at least 18 years old to participate. Donations to the Paws program can be done online, as well.
Additionally, Paws hosts field trips to the Ramapo-Bergen Animal Refuge Inc. for the students involved in the program.
“[Paws is] really great because it’s done in an environment that is totally stress-free, so the kids actually – you can see them transform, as well as the animals, truly right before your eyes. It’s very, very gratifying,” Keyser said.
To learn more about RBARI or to obtain a volunteer application, visit rbari.org.
By Brianna Ruback