Central Ohio pets are helping people cope with work, behavioral-health issues and academics.

Blacklick resident Harriet Holloway and her black lab, Strider, and Granville resident Kim Vohs and her yellow lab, Basha, volunteer as Pet Partners therapy teams at the Gahanna branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Vohs said Basha, 10, was a guide dog she raised from the time she was 8 weeks old.

“She was with Guide Dogs of America and was supposed to be a guide dog,” Vohs said. “She was super socialized. She developed food allergies so she was dropped from the program.”

Vohs said she was glad to be able to keep her.

“I immediately thought I should do something with her,” she said.

Two years ago, they passed tests to be a Pet Partners therapy team.

She and Holloway have worked together as Read with Me teams at Gahanna’s library and at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business to provide stress relief to students during exams.

“With the kids, some of them read just fine and want to see the dog,” Vohs said. “What I’m finding with the kids who don’t read well is that they associate reading with something being fun.”

Holloway said she knew she wanted to do some volunteer work with her dog and children when she retired at the end of 2015.

She started taking classes in spring 2016 through Pet Partners.

The organization requires therapy teams to take a handlers workshop that teaches how to be an advocate for a pet.

“Pet Partners supports me with insurance,” Holloway said. “You have to pass a test with over 20 elements.”

Holloway starting volunteering in Gahanna by herself through Reading Buddies, then brought Strider along starting in February.

Gahanna youth-services librarian Amy Hay said so many youngsters are at the library in the evenings that she thought reading to the dogs was something that could be filtered in.

“We wanted to focus on kids after school,” she said. “It’s extra programming in the evening. This has been great. Kids come in and they can bring a book and read to the dogs.”

Hay said some of the children were nervous at first because they had never been around dogs.

“Some decided to come more regularly,” she said. “It helps with their reading and being around dogs. Some kids seem more comfortable reading to the dog than an adult. I’ve seen benefits to the struggling readers.”

Wellness program

Holloway and Strider also recently started volunteering as a pet-therapy team for Aetna’s wellness program in New Albany.

Lisa Meringolo, an Aetna client advocate, said the program is new in the New Albany office, but it originally was piloted at eight other Aetna locations with wonderful results.

“In return, the program has expanded to include 13 other Aetna sites, including our office here in New Albany,” she said. “The program was designed to help reduce the stress levels of the employees and to help improve their overall health and sense of well-being.”

A survey taken of the pilot program’s participants found that 64.2 percent said their mood was significantly improved after interaction with the pet therapy teams.

About 35 percent said their mood was improved while 0.6 percent rated their mood as unchanged and 0.18 percent declined comment, Meringolo said.

Behavioral health

Vohs also volunteers with Basha through Licking Memorial Hospital.

“We’ve been going to Shepherd Hill Behavioral Health in Newark,” she said. “It’s a short-term rehab facility. We visit every other Sunday.”

In behavioral health, she said, the people she visits are generally at the lowest points in their lives.

“There are times when there’s someone who doesn’t want to speak to staff,” Vohs said. “They will share their feelings with me or the dog.”

If she was sick and in a hospital, Vohs said, she can’t think of anything she would like better than a visit from an animal.

Pet Partners

Natalie Pond, Pet Partners marketing and strategic partnerships coordinator, said the organization’s mission is to improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond.

“We advocate to have animals incorporated safely and responsibly into health-care and social-services settings, and we accomplish this primarily through our Therapy Animal Program composed of 15,000 volunteers nationwide who visit with their pet in facilities like hospitals, nursing homes or schools,” Pond said.

“Our therapy-animal teams of a handler and their companion animal go through a screening process with us called a registration. This combination of coursework and in-person evaluation that they complete demonstrates that they are suitable and prepared for their volunteer work.”

She said Pet Partners, based in Bellevue, Washington, is a leader in continuing education, not just for volunteers but for anyone interested in what is termed animal-assisted interventions that are structured, goal-oriented therapies that involve time spent with an animal.

Pet Partners registers nine species for therapy animal work: dogs, cats, horses, llamas-alpacas, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, pigs and birds.

Pond said dogs are the most popular of the species registered; 94 percent of PP teams are dog teams, with the remaining 6 percent composed of other species.

She said Pet Partners has more than 300 horses and more than 200 cats registered with the program.

“Within the therapy-animal program, it’s very popular for teams to visit in hospitals, residential care such as nursing homes and in schools or libraries as part of reading programs,” Pond said. “We are fortunate to benefit from 40 years’ experience in the field of animal-assisted interventions, and then and now we remain the nation’s leader in this work.”

Equine therapy

Holly Jedlicka, executive director of PBJ Connections Inc. in Pataskala, said she works in one of the therapy services in the Westerville schools North Pointe Program, offering psychoeducational groups at the high school and middle school levels.

“We utilize the EAGALA model of equine-assisted psychotherapy,” she said. “That model is internationally recognized.”

She said clients are asked to project their feelings onto the horse.

Jedlicka said she sees leadership skills and strengths in the students the schools might not have seen, because the environment is different at school.

“We’ve had colorful instances of kids in conflict and they could manage that conflict by being in a group (with up to 10 kids) with the horses.”

She said students learn conflict resolution they can apply to situations with peers.

Jedlicka said the Westerville schools program is for students on individualized-education programs.

“They essentially see us 18 times, every other week during the school year,” Jedlicka said. “The goal is to help the client find solutions to their own struggles. It’s all nonriding. There’s a strict code of ethics.”

PBJ also works with Columbus, Newark, Northridge and Watkins Memorial high schools.

“It’s similar to Westerville, but Westerville has their own agenda,” Jedlicka said. “The others do a 10-week program.

“The kids are selected by the school staff based on need. They may be struggling with truancy or grief. They come for 90 minutes for 10 weeks.”

She said PBJ’s mission statement is to provide professional behavioral-health therapy for children, adults and families through horses, counseling and nature.

She said PBJ will host an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. July 9 at the Austin E. Knowlton Center for Equine Science in Westerville, which is one of its four partner facilities.

Another open house is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. Aug. 6 at Taco Bella Farm, 3231 Burnside Road in Johnstown.

For more about PBJ, visit online at PBJconnections.org or email at info@PBJconnections.org.

To learn more about Pet Partners, visit www.PetPartners.org.