José Woodhead and her dogs, a yellow lab named Ginger and a black cocker mix named Midnight, are Pet Partners volunteers with Intermountain Therapy Animals (ITA). The service required of these volunteers can be difficult and emotionally taxing because all the patients ITA visits are hurting in some way; whether physical (through accident, injury or stroke) mental (Alzheimer’s patients, children with disabilities), or emotional (children suffering from sexual abuse and abandonment). Some volunteers can only stand exposure to this kind of pain for a year or two. But it has not daunted Ms. Woodhead; she was one of only three people in the organization who has maintained constant, uninterrupted volunteer service for more than nine years. She also works full-time at the University of Utah directing a research laboratory, so in addition to the challenges of raising her family while working full-time, she puts enormous effort into juggling all her commitments and responsibilities to leave enough time for the volunteer work she treasures.
One of Ms. Woodhead’s grandchildren is multiply impaired following a premature birth. She felt that his survival was in large part due to the endless hours of love and care he had received from volunteers, so her interest in children at the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind was born of a desire to repay that volunteer time. She has also noticed how pivotal to ITA’s establishing a program at the school, becoming the Program Coordinator there. She has now served there for more than nine years. She has also worked with abused children at the Primary Children’s Medical Center Residential Treatment Facility since 1996, and with rehabilitation patients at the University of Utah Hospital since 1999. Each of these assignments she does weekly.
Ms. Woodhead works with the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind (USDB) school staff to develop strategies that will help each individual child reach his goals. One important need for multiply challenged children is to increase sensory awareness by providing tactile, visual, emotional or physical stimulation. The animals are also great motivators for getting the children to work on strengthening and relaxing their muscles and developing coordination. For children who are visually impaired the animals help develop nurturing skills, they teach cooperation and build confidence and self-esteem.
Ms. Woodhead’s work with a little boy named Chase started at the USDB. He was afraid to communicate and would scream at the dogs. After a month with the dogs, Chase stopped screaming and at age four he now anticipates the dog’s visits. They have helped him lose his fear of communication and he is learning how to communicate because of his interaction with Ms. Woodhead’s dogs.
Ms. Woodhead is also a mentor for dozens of other new Pet Partner teams, teaching them through demonstration, example and guidance. At her own expense, she has traveled to Delta Society conferences in New York City and Phoenix and paid for course training to become a certified Animal Evaluator and a certified Workshop Instructor so that she can help screen and train new volunteers. She also has made significant presentations for the organization, such as “Paws Helping Little People” at the 1995 and 1996 Utah Early Intervention and Preschool Education Conferences and “An AAT Program for Multiply Challenged Children” at the 1996 conference of the International Delta Society.