Program Harnesses the Power of Pets

A woman in an Alzheimer’s unit suddenly sat up at the table where she had been resting her head against a stuffed animal. Her face lit up, and she embraced the two dogs that had just entered the room.

The dogs and their human partners are volunteers from Platte Pet Power, a program of the Platte County University of Missouri Extension Council.

The Northland-based program, which is celebrating 19 years of service, began in January 2000 when co-founder and volunteer coordinator Sharen Hunt recognized a need to improve the quality of life for Missourians who live or interact in group settings.

“It provides support and logistics for volunteers and their pets to visit cooperating nursing homes, rehabs, teen shelters, schools, and hospitals. The volunteers do this to share the human-animal bond,” Hunt said. “Growing up on a farm, the animals filled our lives. The unconditional acceptance that animals give is excellent therapy for the elderly and for people with emotional and mental challenges and those in crisis situations.”

Hunt said that visits with the volunteers are typically short, and the emphasis is on the animals. The program has featured all kinds of pets, including goats, ferrets, and mini horses.

“The volunteers go around the room, and everyone gets to pet each animal and talk to it a little bit on a one-to-one basis,” she said. “The volunteer might talk about the animal’s name. There’s not a script. By keeping the conversation on the animal, it evokes memories about animals they may have had in the past and promotes other conversations about the animal.”

Volunteers can choose from more than a dozen sites in the Northland that have signed agreements with Platte County University Extension. To be considered for the program, animals must be immunized and go through temperament testing. 

The next new volunteer orientation is September 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Platte County Resource Center. Pet temperament testing will be held on September 24. For more information about the program or to sign up for orientation, contact the MU Extension Platte County Office at (816) 270-2141 or platteco@missouri.edu. You can also reach out to Hunt directly at (816) 587-1865 or hunts@missouri.edu

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