Caring for those in Need

The Unconditional Love of Therapy Dogs

In life, we are often faced with and challenged by unexpected and difficult situations. The way that we react to and deal with them makes all the difference. Will we choose to be angry or seek someone to blame? Or will we take action and focus on the future, instead?

BY Tosha Tharp-Gaitanis | December 2023 | Category: Family, Community + The Holidays

The Unconditional Love of Therapy Dogs

When my four-year-old son was diagnosed with Autism in 2012, I found myself in just such a situation. This was my crossroads. After running the entire gamut of emotions, from anger and sadness to depression. I ultimately emerged secure in my determination to dedicate all of my efforts towards helping my beloved son mature into a successful young man.

After receiving my son’s initial diagnosis, we were referred for an Occupational Therapy evaluation. I was confident that all he needed was to work on some of his fine motor skills. After the therapist completed her assessment, she reviewed the results with me. I was stunned! My four-year-old son had the upper body strength of an 18-month-old and the grasping strength of a nine-month-old. He couldn’t stack more than two blocks, had various sensory issues… the list of his deficits seemed endless.

Shaken to the core, but more determined than ever to prepare him for school, I accompanied him to OT sessions twice a week, questioning the “why’s” of everything he and the therapist did together. Then, I turned his playroom at home into an OT gym and tried to duplicate his exercises at the clinic. He had other ideas. Choosing his preferred – and familiar – activities, he would run away or hit, kick, and spit at me to avoid the exercises. One day, I decided to try something different by making my French Bulldog Zoe, who always sat next to me, the focus of his attention.

I began with the swing. I asked, if Zoe sat in the swing with him, would he stay in? He said “yes.” We tried it and it worked! He stayed in the swing petting Zoe, and she loved the attention. Next up, wheelbarrow walks. I had Zoe “wait” on one side of the room. I told my son that I would place a small dog biscuit on his back that he would “walk” over to her, remove it and give it to her. Once he agreed and got into position, I grabbed his legs and placed the dog biscuit on his back. Although he was wobbly and the biscuit fell off, he excitedly said, “Put it back on!” I did and he eagerly, if somewhat shakily, wheelbarrow walked it over to Zoe. He gave her the biscuit and jumped up, saying, “Let’s do it again!” I was elated!

Our small successes prompted me to incorporate Zoe into every exercise and activity he did. I then added my other Frenchie, Jacques into the mix, who was still a puppy and LOVED playing tug-o-war and catching balls and Frisbees. Jacques’ upper body strength came naturally to him because of his large head and broad shoulders. He not only helped my son build up his upper body strength, he helped with his life skills as well. Since my son was still learning how to take a bath and have his teeth brushed, he was only too happy to “teach” Jacques the ropes. 

I soon stopped attending his OT sessions, but one day while still taking my son to OT, as I waited in the lobby, I could hear children yelling in non-compliance inside other rooms. My immediate thought: they need a dog back there. Then it clicked. Why couldn’t they have a dog back there? It works for us at home. I began researching Therapy dogs, what they are, what they do, how to become one, and started formal Animal Therapy training with Zoe. Then I began researching non-profit 501(c)3 organizations, including the many intricacies involved in setting one up. In early 2014, Zoe became an official Animal Therapy dog through a nationally accredited organization. By the end of 2014, Pawsitive Friendships had not only been formed, we received our official 501(c)3 status. We were ready to make a Pawsitive impact!

Zoe and I visited countless clinics, describing Pawsitive Friendships’ structure, purpose and goals. Despite many disappointing rejections, in early 2015 we had a breakthrough with a single clinic. The administration allowed us to work with two clients and their therapists. The results of our sessions duplicated the results of the sessions with my son! I immediately began recruiting additional teams of registered Animal Therapy dogs and volunteer handlers, and by the end of the year, we had seven teams working at this particular clinic as well as at a private Autism school.

Working in a school differed from working in a clinic. There was no therapist facilitating the activities. Instead the teachers and para-professionals were focused on the students, and Pawsitive Friendships was supplying the activities. After that first school year, I drew up a list of ideas and put them into practice with my son. My next step was having speech and occupational therapists review our lessons and add the formal terminology to our activities. Pawsitive Friendships now uses a structured and copyrighted curriculum for all of our programs.

We started receiving requests for hypoallergenic dogs. Shortly after, I brought home a four-week-old potbelly pig named Penelope, who provided an entirely new level of learning and self-regulation to my son’s progress. Because she was so young, she squealed incessantly and was extremely skittish. My son had to learn that if he didn’t want her to squeal and run away, he would have to be calm in both his body language and voice. For her part, Penelope accepted my son’s meltdowns and loud, sudden movements as “normal.” Being someone who thrives on thinking “outside the box,” I considered Penelope a potential substitute for a hypoallergenic dog and began training her in earnest! When she turned one, she started working as a Therapy pig, adding another dimension of sensory integration to our existing programs.

As we continued to expand, more students began asking about other animal species. This led me to investigate the possibility of carrying our own insurance, thereby allowing Pawsitive Friendships to conduct our own assessments of Therapy animals. Not only are we now an independent Animal Therapy Program with the ability to assess and utilize over 12 species within that program, we are also a registered organization with the American Kennel Club (AKC), enabling teams to earn their Therapy Dog titles through us. And our volunteers pay no annual membership fee to be part of Pawsitive Friendships.

It’s been nine years since I founded Pawsitive Friendships, and I’m astounded by the speed at which we’ve grown. We currently have over 130 Animal Therapy teams and 1,600 individuals with special needs enrolled in our programs: from clinics and special education schools to adults with developmental disabilities. We’ve recently begun expanding within Arizona itself, targeting the Phoenix metro area and Tucson.

Looking back, I’m still amazed that what was originally an in-home project with my son and two dogs, is now “pawsitively” impacting thousands of special needs community members across Arizona. Whenever I see our logo, comprised of my son and Jacques, I’m reminded of the struggles we worked through and the successes we achieved. My goal remains the same: to help as many individuals as possible achieve those same successes, and realize their fullest potential through the unconditional love of Therapy animals. 

Tosha Tharp-Gaitanis, a mother of an autistic son, has always loved animals and working with children. The daughter of a children’s pastor, she never knew a time when there weren’t at least two dogs in their family. She could not have known that someday her twin passions would merge and ultimately form a single entity: Pawsitive Friendships, founded in 2014. 

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