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© Allison Usavage

Pet the Pet Program

The Pet the Pet Program takes therapy dogs and other animals to senior living facilities around the region. The animals open lines of communication and get conversation flowing to reflect on the impact the residents have had on our community and the value of our seniors.

We talked to Nancy Given, Program Coordinator and Executive Director, and photographed a visit to Clare Bridge memory care facility.


What is the program?

The Pet the Pet Program is two fold. The primary purpose is to do theraputic pet visits to seniors living in skilled nursing facilities and day treatment centers. The second is a limited dog rescue of dogs from high-kill shelters, mostly in the South, that don’t have a chance. We bring them here and adopt them out. But we also pick our dogs for the program out of the incoming dogs.


Who is it good for?

Primarily the seniors in the community that are either in skilled nursing homes or day treatment centers and some memory care units. However, the secondary audience is the staff that work with these people. I used to think that we were only going in for the seniors but I learned that if we make the staff happy that filters down to the people in their care.


© Allison Usavage
What kind of change are you trying to make?

We do it because we think we make a difference. It may be only temporary, but we like to think we make a difference in the lives of people who are institutionalized for whatever reason for at least the time that we’re there, and hopefully there’s some carry-on effect. We see hundreds of people every month, so we like to think that we’ve changed their lives and made them a little brighter on that particular day.


How did it start?

The program started when I was a seminary student at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. I took a part-time job at Seneca View long-term care at Schyuler Hospital, this was many many years ago, as an assistant chaplain, and nobody would talk to me! So I asked the recreation staff if I could bring a dog to work with me to get people stimulated and speak with me.

It was like magic. The dog opened the doors to communication immediately. I’ve always loved dogs but that was my first clue as to how powerful they can be in the communication process with people who are pretty unresponsive. And it evolved from there!


What impact does this have on our community?

People who are in nursing homes and are out of society… I think it gives them some connection back into society. The animals are the door-openers to get the communication flowing. What we’re trying to do is almost a life review with the seniors about their connection to the community and the impact they’ve had on the community, so that they know that they were valuable and, in many ways, still are.


How has the community supported you?

We have been blessed. We have many people who make contributions, mostly monetary, to our program. I have pulled the volunteers from the community… it’s just been wonderful how supportive the community has been for people who know about it.

What struggles have you encontered?

We have a really tiny budget but meeting that can be challenging. The animals are maintained here and trained. The facilities that we go to are super supportive in terms of staff, and the volunteers are wonderful. So, like a lot of other non-profits, it’s the almighty dollar.


© Allison Usavage
What should we be celebrating?

Our seniors. They are so important to a community. They have such a base of knowledge and experience and so much to give. We should absolutely be celebrating our seniors and their lives.


How can we participate?

We can use a limited number of new volunteers that are committed. That means anything from 1-4 hours a month. I would say that’s the most important, because I have a very hard time asking for money!

Volunteer, adopt, or donate by contacting Nancy.


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