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Making a difference in the lives of Calgarians with pet visitation therapy

You’ve heard of pen pals, but what about pet pals?

One Calgary non-profit organization has been providing vulnerable citizens with pet visitation therapy for more than 37 years.

“We sometimes joke that we’re Calgary’s best-kept secret,” says Jennifer James, events and volunteer coordinator for Pet Access League Society (PALS).

In 1985, PALS started by providing pet visits at six local senior facilities as many of the residents were unable to move in with their animals.

“That’s really heartbreaking having to give up a pet. And they don’t necessarily have the choice, right? Their health just takes them that route and they have to leave a pet behind,” James says.

Visiting dozens of sites

Over the years, the number of sites PALS visited grew to 65, including long-term care homes, hospices, hospitals, schools, mental health facilities, emergency and domestic violence shelters, and even YYC Calgary International Airport.

After COVID hit, PALS attended vaccine clinics.

“We still, to this day, get feedback about how the animals helped, how our volunteers helped, specifically with the children,” social media coordinator Katie Frost says.

Due to the close contact nature of PALS visits, most had to be paused during the pandemic and the organization continues to build back the number of facilities it attends.

Currently, more than 400 volunteers and their canine and feline companions visit around 50 sites across the city.

Making an impact

Frost says a 10-minute visit can have a huge impact and make someone’s day.

“In one of the facilities I used to visit with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, I had one person take me to one side and say that I was the only reason that they had got dressed that day,” Frost says.

PALS continuously receives positive feedback, James says.

“Some of the seniors we visit, we’re the only visitors they get ever or, you know, for months on end and they really look forward to us going,” she says.

James remembers a man at a home PALS visited pre-COVID who would insist the nursing staff dress him in his suit for every visit.

Beyond pet visitation therapy

In addition to the Pet Visitation Therapy Program, PALS also offers other programs like Story PALS in partnership with Calgary Public Library.

Over a six-week period, kids aged 6-12 who are struggling to read are paired up with a PALS pet for one-on-one reading sessions.

“We see that the confidence in the children soars because it’s a non-judgmental environment. Their reading ability is always positively affected,” Frost says.

“It makes my heart very happy.”

PALS also offers a Legacy Fund scholarship for students in memory of a former canine volunteer named Baxter.

Getting involved

There is an online application form for anyone who wants to apply to be a PALS volunteer with their pet, with intakes in the spring and fall.

Dogs have to be at least two years old and, since the focus of PALS is to visit those who experience isolation and who struggle with mental health, Frost says not all animals are cut out for the program.

Volunteers should also be ready to make the time commitment.

“We ask volunteers to give careful thought to their time allocation because we need these visits to be regular… We don’t want to be cancelling visits so we do ask that people are prepared to make that time commitment before they send in their application,” Frost says.

“Most of our visits are with the vulnerable population, seniors, children in the hospital, mental health patients at recovery and addictions programs, so they need to think of that side as well,” James adds.

Ways to support

PALS is a non-profit organization with no government funding, so it relies on community support.

One-time or monthly donations can be made online and there are other opportunities to support on the PALS Facebook page, as well as legacy donations.

“We’ve had in the past some people that will leave money in their will specifically to PALS and these are either people that have been affected in a positive way by a PALS visit or by volunteers or people that completely agree with the cause,” Frost says.

Tickets are also on sale for the upcoming fundraiser Bella Notte, taking place on Feb. 11 at Marda Loop Community Hall.

Attendees will enjoy dinner, drinks, a silent auction, door prizes, and entertainment from Dueling Piano Kings.

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