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Meeting Community Needs through Animal Friendships

Notice of Upcoming H.A.B.I.T. Information meeting:

Feb. 28, 2015, 1-3 p.m. at the UT College of Veterinary Medicine. Doors open at 12:30 p.m.

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For more information on having a pet evaluated for enrollment in H.A.B.I.T. , please contact Karen Armsey at (865) 974-5633

By Nichole Stevens 

The Human Animal Bond in Tennessee (H.A.B.I.T.) program was founded by John New, professor of comparative medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine. New observed that many people experiencing pain became at ease with the help of an animal companion.  UT’s H.A.B.I.T. program now involves both UT College of Social Work and the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“[New] saw a need in the community,” said Karen Armsey, H.A.B.I.T. program administrator. “He saw that animals can make a difference.”

HABIT at Homecoming

Karen Armsey and her dog Nash (left) at UT Homecoming./Photo Courtesy of Karen Armsey

Armsey takes her own dog, Nash, a Great Pyrenees Mix, to the Preston Medical Library at the UT Medical Center every Monday.

“He’s a big ol’, white fuzzy thing,” she said Nash.

Armsey and Nash spend an hour  visiting medical staff, doctors in training and patients. Armsey said they have programs in public library as well for children’s reading programs. The kids often send thank you cards to her for bringing her dog into class for them.

“I have dyslexia, so I know it can be hard to read out loud to a classmate,” Armsey said. “With a dog there, it doesn’t matter. It’s just happy to hear someone speak to it.”

Animals enrolled in H.A.B.I.T. are subject to a behavior analysis to ensure they are kid-friendly. Veterinarians make all the proper checks before sending a pet into one of the many H.A.B.I.T. facilities, including a medical evaluation.

H.A.B.I.T. volunteers work with specific people to meet specific needs. Sometimes pets are there to break the ice at a grief support group, while at others, the animals fill a void and become a needed friend in the classroom, at a senior care center or at a hospital.

“Dogs can see the person as a person and beyond the diagnosis,” said Armsey. “People walk in and, just for a minute, the patients’ lives are normal again.”

H.A.B.I.T.

Photo courtesy of Karen Armsey

Armsey said the best feedback she’s received was from a patient who was a former H.A.B.I.T volunteer. The woman said that she developed an even greater appreciation for the program by seeing its impact  through the eyes of a patient.

Armsey says H.A.B.I.T. receives a lot of positive feedback, but the most common complain she hears is the partners would love to have more volunteers.

H.A.B.I.T. pets consist of mostly dogs, with a few cats and rabbits. Knoxville H.A.B.I.T pets visit about 120 different facilities, including children’s hospitals, nursing homes, hospitals, cancer centers, hospice centers, elementary schools and many other places that ask for them.

Armsey said there are a number of other outreach programs out of the veterinary school, including their sister program, the Companion Animal Initiative of Tennessee (CAIT),  and the Veterinary Social Work program.

Ady Souza H.A.B.I.T.

Photo of Ady Souza, courtesy of Karen Armsey

In forming an outreach program, Armsey describes the balance it requires.

“You have to find people that see the passion you have and make sure there is community and university support,” Armsey said.

She also advises new programs not try to “reinvent the wheel,” but to learn from existing groups that are already on the ground.

“We should all be ready to help each other,” said Armsey.

Human Animal Bond in Tennessee (H.A.B.I.T.) was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.