Lend a helping paw: PAWS program brings pups to those who need a smile

Bringing a smile to a child in a hospital is routine for Tucker, a former shelter dog who is now the Central Texas Protection for Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) ambassadog.

Tucker could be joined in the future by two additional dogs, Toby and Mojo, whose job it is to visit hospitals, nursing homes, children’s programs and other locations to positively impact people’s lives and brighten their days.

All of it is part of the Central Texas PAWS visiting pet program.  

Central Texas Protection of Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) executive director Melody Hilburn poses with a pooch at the shelter in Kyle. (photo by Lesley De Leon)

Melody Hilburn, PAWS Executive Director and Tucker’s handler, visits hospital patients and senior citizens in nursing homes a couple of times a month.

“It’s more to get their mind off the current situation and just have a little joy in the day, especially in the hospital,” Hilburn said.

Some senior citizens don’t have families, so having a visit from a pet helps relieve stress and loneliness, she said.

“You can see the delight on the residents’ faces when they see the dogs coming in,” Hilburn said.

PAWS’ Visiting Pet program began four years ago with Tucker.

“[Tucker] was with the Seton program for the first three years …. He was doing therapy work, and then  we started developing our own program here.”
 Melody Hilburn, PAWS Executive Director and Tucker’s handler

As the program is fairly new, the lack of resources and funding prevented PAWS from expanding.

While Toby and Mojo have been sponsored, PAWS still needs sponsors for the two dogs who will also join the program.

Despite the need for more sponsors, Toby and Mojo are training by visiting the Stonebridge Skilled Nursing Health Center in Southwest Austin.

After graduating from the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen training program, PAWS will further train Toby and Mojo, focusing on distractions commonly found in nursing homes or hospitals, such as wheelchairs.

“We add a component on top of [the AKC training]so they’re used to that environment,” Hilburn said.

After Toby and Mojo pass their exams and graduate from training, two more dogs will begin training. However, these two dogs will be trained more to entertain than to comfort.

“They’re going to put on more kind of a circus show for residents and children’s programs,” Hilburn said.

Dogs chosen to participate in Visiting Pet program have to meet criteria and go through a selection process, Hilburn said.

“This is an additional training program they go through with their handler,” Hilburn said.

Dogs involved in the Visiting Pet program go through training once a year.

As the Visiting Pet program expands, the four-legged friends spread love and happiness to those who need it most.

“It’s that animal-human bond that we try to promote,” Hilburn said.

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