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4-H'ers Train Unusual Visitors With PAWS
By Jamie Vickers
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Clay County hospitals will have some friendly yet unusual guests when 4-H'ers and their pets show up for therapy.
PAWS, Pets Are Worth Sharing, is a new program teaching Clay County 4-H'ers responsibility. PAWS trains youth and their pets for visits to nursing homes, schools and children's homes to offer a unique type of therapy.
Mary Ann Holloway, president of the PAWS program and owner of Paws-itive Attitudes Training Service, said PAWS offers a break in routine for people in nursing homes and children's homes.
The pets, which can include dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs and iguanas, do tricks which often make patients laugh. Some patients see the visits with pets as incentive to work on opening their arthritic hands to feel the fur and pet the animals. Others improve their memory skills by remembering the names of the pets that visit
"For the elderly, petting the animals relieves stress and brings back memories," Holloway said. "It takes their mind off pains such as arthritis. The pets are a type of therapy for some patients."
Jessica Walker, 15, is a 4-H'er training to be part of the PAWS program.
"I like my pets, and I like people," Walker said. "I've done other projects in nursing homes, and PAWS lets me put those two things together."
Walker and her Australian Shepard began training in August with simple commands like sit, stay and heel. In more advanced training and as a part of the final test for the pets, they will face scenes created to simulate conditions at nursing homes and other places they may visit.
As their ninth and final week of training approaches, pet and owner teams are ready for the intense test which proves their weeks of hard work have paid off.
The pets learn not to panic around loud noises and not to take food from the floor or strangers. This is important because pets could mistake harmful medicine for treats. Pets also learn how to react with wheelchairs and patients who may become angry or who have muscular disorders such as Parkinson's disease.
As a part of the training, Holloway said youth are reminded that some elderly patients may yell and some may cling to the pets because they are like one that the patient had in their own childhood. The pets learn to trust their owners, and the bond is strengthened between the pet and owner.
This training in Clay County requires pets and owners to meet once a week as a group. Every day the students must practice what was learned until the next meeting.
"The 4-H students have really impressed me," Holloway said. "This was the first time I have done this program with a group this young, and they are catching on quicker than most adults. They are more dedicated than I expected."
The 4-H'ers in the program are all between the ages of 10 and 16. They learn responsibility and commitment to their pets and to people through PAWS.
"Our youth are committed to the work required for the PAWS program," said Donna Cliett, Clay County Extension 4-H youth agent. "They know that people in the homes and schools look forward to their visits. This is a great way for the kids to give something back to their community while teaching them a lot about themselves and their pets."