BURRILLVILLE - Therapy pets are increasingly being recognized for bringing about amazing results in the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive well-being of numerous individuals.
These amazing pets, who are characteristically responsive to people, have a unique capacity to help individuals battle depression, lower blood pressure, work toward increased mobility, experience linguistic gains, and even spark lost memories.
Tucker, a four-year-old Golden Retriever, and Tess, a three-year-old Chocolate Labrador Retriever, are utilizing their talents as therapy dogs in a completely different capacity: these therapy dogs are working as educators in Burrillville as part of an educational program sponsored by the Burrillville Parks & Recreation Department and taught by program creator Michelle Losardo.
The lessons Tess and Tucker teach children through the Paw Prints of Hope Pet Education Program encompass everything from responsible pet guardianship to community action.
"Amazingly, the response of these students and their families demonstrates that Tucker and Tess’ teaching techniques are quite effective," Losardo says. "Because of their experiences with these therapy dogs, children are beginning to take on higher levels of responsibility in the care of their own pets, are more aware of how their actions affect their pets’ quality of life, and are even working to improve the health of homeless animals in their own community."
Losardo, Tucker and Tess’ guardian, has incorporated her years of experience as and elementary and early childhood educator in creating and facilitating the Paw Prints of Hope Pet Education Program. This comprehensive curriculum immerses children in authentic, hands-on experiences with her credentialed therapy dogs through which the students discover both the joys and responsibilities of pet guardianship.
The series of six Paw Prints of Hope workshop are all based on the core premise that when a pet is brought into a family, that family has made a choice to be the pet’s guardian and has assumed the tremendous responsibility of ensuring the quality of a pet’s life.
"There is a clear distinction between caring for an inanimate object and caring for a living creature,' Losardo explains. "Clearly, many children and even some adults are not always aware of this distinction because pets are still regarded by some as property, status symbols, and even security systems."
The experience of Tucker placing his head against a child’s side as a way of expressing gratitude for the child’s gentleness or Tess dropping a toy at a child’s feet as she invites the child to play offers students a deeper level of understanding of the human-animal bond than could ever be taught through a program void of a loving and responsive therapy pet.
"Students can’t help but come away from a lesson on pet health where they have been entrusted to hear the rhythm of Tess’ heartbeat and not have learned empathy for another living being" Losardo says.
In addition to these hands-on experiences with Tucker and Tess, Losardo has also integrated experiences in music, animal science, social science, are, literature and cooking into her pet education program. The Paw Prints of Hope students are actively learning and having fun while doing it. The students, Losardo says, come away from this program with a true sense of compassion and efficacy.
"The students learn that although animals cannot communicate with words, they still have feeling, needs, and desires which are expressed through body language,' she says. "Keen observation of this language and recognition of its meaning are stressed in the program so that the students develop an awareness of how their every action or lack of action affects their pets’ sense of security within a family and its bond to people in general."
In a struggling economy, many families are surrendering their pets to animal shelters and rescue organization due to financial constraints. Losardo says most other homeless animals are surrendered because many families don’t understand the tremendous responsibility and reality of having pets and make poor decisions when choosing them.
"When the temperament, lifestyle, and characteristics of pets do not match the families with which they live, it is often the pets who are falsely blamed for the problems which arise," she says. "Paw Prints of Hope students are instructed in making educated decisions about choosing a pet from the very beginning, so as not to merely choose pets based on popularity of breed or attractiveness. They learn too that although families may want to have pets, there are times and situations when it is not in the best interest of a pet or the family: a decision which requires a great deal of maturity."
One of the workshops entitled “Tuck’s Biscuits” is a favorite among the students. In this workshop, the children learn how funding for the health of homeless animals is dependent in most situations on personal donations and the generosity of professional members of the community. During this workshop, Losardo reads a book she has written also entitled, Tuck’s Biscuits, in which photos of Tucker in a chef’s hat guide the amused listeners through the process of baking his favorite dog biscuits. Then the children put their culinary skills to work baking biscuits which are sold to friends and family members. All proceeds from “Tuck’s Biscuits” are donated to a student-selected animal shelter or rescue organization right within their own community.
Losardo and her therapy dogs have been trained in professional pet assisted therapy through the D.J. Pet Assisted Therapy Certificate Program at C.C.R.I. and have been credentialed by the Windwalker Coalition for Professional Pet Assisted Therapy. Losardo holds a M.Ed. in elementary education with a concentration in early childhood education from Rhode Island Collage and has over 19 years of experience as an educator behind her.
These credentials have helped Losardo to formulate the structure, ethics, and professionalism of the Paw Prints of Hope Pet Education Program. However, the substance and heart of the curriculum are built upon Losardo’s personal experiences with her own pets, both past and present. Moments of joy and humor are shared in addition to stories of lessons learned the hard way. The students learn how to build a pet’s trust, how to keep a pet from developing destructive behavior, but mostly how to enjoy the special bond between their own pets and themselves.
Losardo’s other book, Lessons from Tess, embraces all of the Paw Prints of Hope’s learning objectives, is told from the voice of one of her therapy dogs, and includes illustrations in oil of children compassionately interacting with many pets.
“I don’t believe in just sitting back and wishing for things to be better than they are,' Losardo says. "Rather I believe in recognizing the gifts we have been given, even if it may be a cautious and frightened two-year-old dog who has been abandoned by her family, and celebrating the possibility of bringing about change. It’s easy to doubt our potential, but if we don’t try, we’ll never know what good we can do."
Says Losardo: "I wasn’t sure my dogs would become credentialed in pet assisted therapy, but they have. I wasn’t certain that my home town would accept a crazy idea of educating children in pet care, but they did. I didn’t know if parents would even recognize the importance of what this program is all about and register their children, but there they are working in the Paw Prints of Hope Pet Education Program alongside my dogs, Tucker and Tess. Hope is the foundation upon which this program is built. Hopefully with even the slightest influence of what my dogs are teaching these children, the concept of homeless pets will be a thing of the past and every family who chooses to have a pet will make an educated decision based on respect for all involved.”
The Paw Prints of Hope Pet Education Program is taught on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. at the Burrillville Community Recreation Center in Pascoag. Applications for the next set of classes which are scheduled to begin Nov. 30 are now being accepted. Individual workshops are also available to other educational or community-based organizations upon request. Losardo can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org  to inquire about registering a child for the Paw Prints of Hope Pet Education Program or to request a workshop for children in other educational or community-based organizations.
The Burrillville Parks and Recreation Department also offers a variety of other programs for people of all ages. For a complete listing of the dates, times, and availability of these programs, visit the official website for the Town of Burrillville at www.burrillville.org  and select the parks & recreation heading under the tab labeled Town Departments.