By Pam Dewey • therapy, therapy animals, autism, ASD, autism acceptance, neurodivergent, fundraising • April 15, 2021
A bunny, a llama and a rat walk into a parking lot at Mall of America — does that sound like the beginning of a joke? Well, on Saturday, May 1, these furry friends from North Star Therapy Animals will be joining the Fraser Festival for Autism, presented by Central Roofing, at Mall of America, to bring joy to attendees. The festival is a family and sensory-friendly, drive-thru parade of activities for people to enjoy from the safety of their vehicles.
North Star Therapy Animals — an entirely volunteer-run nonprofit organization, which was founded in 2007 — is a longtime partner of the Fraser Festival for Autism, presented by Central Roofing. Therapy animals are specially-trained to bring “joy, comfort, and companionship to those they meet.” Volunteers bring their therapy animals to Twin Cities metro hospitals, hospice, senior living residences, and care facilities serving individuals with autism, eating disorders or developmental disabilities.
What benefits do therapy animals provide?
According to Healthline, pet therapy can help with “lessening depression, reducing anxiety” and “decreasing loneliness and isolation.”
North Star Volunteer Diane Prange has two therapy animals, huskies Myshkin and Chekhov. She has repeatedly seen the impact therapy animals can have on people.
“Even just seeing a therapy animal can lower blood pressure. Petting an animal releases dopamine, which is very calming,” Prange says. “We’ve seen people open up a lot more. It’s a wonderful way to start a conversation.”
Over the past year, Prange says they’ve had to change the way they do pet therapy. North Star now offers virtual and touchless therapy pet visits.
“We’ve done window visits and parades at senior care facilities. We spread peanut butter on windows, so it felt like animals were kissing the residents when they licked the peanut butter,” Prange says. “We also have the pets do tricks, so even if you can’t touch them, you get joy from them.”
North Star Therapy Animals with their handlers
How does an animal become a therapy animal?
To become a therapy animal, Prange says they usually recommend that a dog completes and passes an obedience class. Your pet must also meet certain criteria.
Prange says you need to ask yourself if your pet likes people. If not, they aren’t a good candidate to be a therapy animal. Prange also says they need to be comfortable riding in a car, since being a therapy animal means traveling to different organizations and facilities. A pet should also obey their handler and be able to walk on a leash, in most cases. Pet Partners is a nationally recognized therapy animal organization with strict standards for both animals and their handlers, and they offer a quiz to help determine if you and your animal can form a therapy team.
To become a part of North Star Therapy Animals, you must take an online course and pass a test from Pet Partners. After you pass the course, you set up an appointment to have your pet tested by a Pet Partners evaluator. The test runs through different role-play scenarios of what you will encounter during different therapy scenarios. Your pet has to demonstrate various actions like tolerating petting, walking on a leash, obeying commands, etc.
Once you pass that test, you become a registered therapy animal with Pet Partners, and you can register with North Star. Prange also wants to encourage children and teens to consider becoming therapy animal handlers. Kids as young as 10 can work with a therapy pet, if their parents come along to events. North Star is offering a scholarship for young animal handlers, which will pay for the therapy animal course and evaluation from Pet Partners.
“I think it’s a cool way for young people to get involved. They do good for others and learn how to connect with all different kinds of people,” Prange says.
Register to attend the Fraser Festival for Autism, presented by Central Roofing, by clicking here.