Animal-Assisted Therapy: Big changes are afoot at Birmingham’s Hand in Paw

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Hand in Paw brings comfort and joy through Animal-Assisted Therapy
Hand in Paw’s therapy animals bring comfort and joy to those who need it most. Photo by Andie Thompkins

Tucked away on a side street in Avondale sits a place that’s home to a lot of joy. Since 1996, Hand in Paw has been bringing Animal-Assisted Therapy to tens of thousands of people. Now, thanks to generous donors, much hard and loving work, and new volunteers, they’re poised to touch even more lives.

Animal-Assisted Therapy: what it is

Therapy animals bring joy and comfort to many people’s lives. According to Brittany Jennings,  Hand in Paw’s Director of Communications, “A HIP Therapy Team provides Animal-Assisted Therapy to people dealing with emotional and physical life challenges. They deliver positive distraction, motivation, empathy and compassion in numerous facilities across Central Alabama.”


While dogs are the most common therapy animal, sometimes Hand in Paw has other types of therapy animals, too, including cats, guinea pigs, a pony and even a rat!

For patients, family members, and staff, animals can provide distraction from pain, worry, and fear in hospitals.

With Animal-Assisted Therapy, Hand in Paw is able to bring joy to the hospital
Hand in Paw volunteers on a hospital visit. Photo by TNR Creative

In rehab, early intervention programs, and special needs classrooms, animals can help participants meet their goals.


With Animal-Assisted Therapy, Hand in Paw helps people with special needs
A Hand in Paw Therapy Team visits with a boy using a walker. Photo by TNR Creative

In classrooms, non-judgmental furry friends encourage young readers to gain confidence and sharpen their skills.

With Animal-Assisted Therapy, Hand in Paw helps young people learn to read
Hand in Paw Therapy Teams help young people get comfortable with reading.

Building healthy relationships with animals can help at-risk young people to learn about anger management while developing empathy and compassion.

With Animal-Assisted Therapy, Hand in Paw helps at-risk young people develop healthy relationships
A Hand in Paw Therapy Team works with young people. 

Finally, Therapy Teams bring comfort to people in difficult circumstances.


With Animal-Assisted Therapy, Hand in Paw brings comfort to people at United Ability
Hand in Paw Therapy Teams bring joy to United Ability. Photo by TNR Creative
With Animal-Assisted Therapy, Hand in Paw brings comfort to veterans
A Hand in Paw Therapy Team visits with a group at the VA. Photo by Mary Margaret Smith

To grow their Animal-Assisted Therapy Team family, Hand in Paw has an updated training program

Together with a group of Hand in Paw evaluators, they have been working to update their training program. They want to get more teams out into the community to do what they do best.

Hand in Paw plans to grow their Animal-Assisted Therapy Team family with a new training program
Two Hand in Paw volunteers at Children’s Hospital with a therapy animal. Photo by Mary Margaret Smith

2019 is going to be a very exciting year for Hand in Paw. With our state of the art training facility, professional evaluators and generous volunteers – we plan on developing strong Therapy Teams to serve our community with confidence. 

Margaret Stinnett, Hand in Paw Executive Director

To support this new training program, they have a new on-site training room, a hospital simulation room for advanced training, and a series of volunteer orientations beginning in January.

Hand in Paw has a new on-site training room for Animal-Assisted Therapy

In this big, new, light-filled room at Hand in Paw’s expanded headquarters, trainee Therapy Teams can come and practice the skills they’ll need for community visits. Hand in Paw’s experienced staff members can help guide folks on this journey.


Hand in Paw staff members look forward to hosting workshops to train Therapy Teams on site. Before, they had to book several different places arond town, but now, according to Brittany, they will “be able to train, evaluate, and practice with teams right on site. This will help our process become much smoother. People can drop by without too much advanced scheduling to practice which is awesome.”

Over time, to serve more of the 100+ facilities on Hand in Paw’s waitlist, they’d also like to host outside groups and Therapy Teams on site. This way, they’ll be able to touch even more people and groups in the community.

 Hand in Paw staff and volunteers are grateful to the generous capital campaign donors who made this expansion possible.


Hand in Paw’s new Children’s of Alabama hospital simulation room makes on-site advanced training for Animal-Assisted Therapy Teams possible

Any Therapy Team that wants to do hospital visits must complete advanced training in order to learn specific protocols. Children’s of Alabama donated an entire hospital simulation room to Hand in Paw, so that Therapy Teams can complete this advanced training on site. According to Brittany, “Before, they could only really talk about processes and didn’t get to truly practice until their shadow visits, but now they can practice before going into the real world to make sure they are ready.” 

Hand in Paw's new hospital simulation room makes on-site advanced training for Animal-Assisted Therapy Teams possible
Children’s Hospital of Alabama donated and set up a full hospital room so Hand in Paw could conduct advanced training on-site. Photo by Sharron Swain for Bham Now

This room makes the advanced training so much better, since Therapy Teams can get used to the layout and sounds of a hospital room before they go out for visits in the real world. Hand in Paw is deeply grateful for this generous gift from Children’s Hospital.

Animal-Assisted Therapy brings fun, connection, and happiness to hospital stays
Hand in Paw Therapy Teams bring a dose of fun, connection, and happiness to hospital stays. Photo by Mary Margaret Smith

Become a part of the Hand in Paw Animal-Assisted Therapy family

Hand in Paw's Animal-Assisted Therapy family is growing
A group of Hand in Paw Therapy Teams.

If you and your furry friend would like to become part of a Hand in Paw Therapy Team, check the prerequisites below, then apply on Hand in Paw’s website.


Prerequisites for becoming part of a Hand in Paw Therapy Team:

  1. Animal must be at least 18 months old.
  2. Must have known or owned animal for six months.
  3. If animal is a dog, you and your dog must complete a group obedience class (a scholarship is available here).
  4. Animal must have up-to-date vaccinations, including rabies

Beginning in January 2019, Hand in Paw is hosting a series of orientations, where they’ll welcome those who have applied to the family, introduce you to the people who will support you along the way, and provide a road map to volunteering with Hand in Paw.

To apply, click here. And to support Hand in Paw’s work, click here.


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Author: Sharron Mendel Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference