On Thursday afternoons, Steve Belair, lead medical records technician at Munson Army Health Center, said the common question going around the office is “Is today puppy day?”
Twice a month, members of the Human Animal Bond organization walk the halls of MAHC visiting with patients and staff.
HAB is a Fort Leavenworth recognized non-profit organization that promotes human-animal bonding through visitations and educational activities in the Fort Leavenworth, Lansing and Leavenworth communities.
This year, HAB is celebrating its 20-year anniversary.
Ruie Gibson, Fort Leavenworth HAB board adviser, is a charter member of the organization. She said her favorite part of volunteering has been the interaction with the people and stories shared. The biggest change in 20 years, she noted, is the size of the group.
Started in 1994 with eight charter members, the volunteer-run group now consists of more than 50 teams made up of dogs, one cat and their handlers.
All breeds of dogs, cats and domestic rabbits are authorized to participate in HAB. Animals must be at least one year of age, examined by a veterinarian and certified as healthy and current on vaccinations. They are also required to pass temperament tests to ensure they are not aggressive and get along with other pets to maintain safe environments during visits in the community.
Teams visit nursing homes, libraries, schools and hospitals. Frequently visited on post are the Combined Arms Research Library and classrooms at MacArthur, Eisenhower and Bradley Elementary Schools.
Buddy Wooten, director of Fort Leavenworth HAB, said the trips to the elementary schools give children the opportunity to be around animals and allows for teachers to use animals to teach topics like addition and colors. Handlers instruct students how to greet the animals and pet them. During the library visits, children can practice reading by reading to the HAB animals.
HAB members, including Wooten and his white schnauzer, Sam, visit nursing homes routinely on evenings and weekends. Many of the residents enjoy petting the animals and sharing stories of their past pets, Wooten said. The visits become part of their routines.
“I go to Medical Lodge, for instance,” Wooten said. “There was one Sunday I didn’t go because I had a cold. The next (HAB) meeting somebody said one of the patients there was asking ‘where’s Sam?’”
Jody Knighton’s cat, Blondie, is the only feline currently in the program.
“She does best at hospitals and nursing homes going into the room one-on-one,” Knighton said. “She seems to respond to people that are very sick. If they are not able to respond to her, she’ll go over and nuzzle them or lay down with them.”
HAB does not expect all members or pets to be comfortable visiting each scheduled location. Members can sign up for as many visits and places they want.
It’s suggested that new members observe several locations without their pets to see which location they feel most comfortable visiting.
Lauren Gillett and her 9-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Gunner, started participating with HAB in October to be involved in the community. Her husband, Maj. Kristopher Gillett, is a student at the Command and General Staff College. Gillett takes into account not only the environment Gunner feels comfortable in, but also herself.
“Think about how your comfort level affects your dog’s,” Gillett said. “My dog knows that I don’t do well in hospitals (because) I have a little ‘white coat issue.’ When I’m in a hospital and my dog is with me, I know he feels my tension or my anxiety so it could trigger something in him. So if you go somewhere where you’re comfortable, it’s better for your pet, too.”
Handlers are expected to arrive 10-15 minutes before a scheduled visit to get their pet acquainted with the location and other animals if necessary. They should always carry their animal’s health certificate and cancel visits if they or the animal are sick. HAB is insured privately, so for insurance reasons, members should call a staff member on the visit if a situation arises or medical assistance is needed.
Al Pursell has been volunteering with HAB for 14 years and said he finds some of the visits inspirational.
“I enjoy talking to the people in the nursing homes and with the other dogs and members of HAB,” Pursell said. “They appreciate it and look forward to it.”
HAB meets the last Wednesday of the month in the lower level of Country Club Bank at 401 Delaware St. in Leavenworth.
Handlers must be 16 years of age or older to participate in HAB, and non-handlers under the age of 16 are not allowed on HAB visits. Membership is $20 and $25 for a family.
There will be a HAB informational booth at the Post Activities Information and Registration Day — better known as PAIR Day — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 29 at Harney Sports Complex.
A 20-year anniversary celebration is scheduled for May 10 at Hunt Lodge. Past and present HAB members, HAB-certified pets, families and facility representatives are invited to attend.
To apply to be a HAB volunteer or for more information, visit www.ftleavenworthhab.org/.
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