Once a month, second graders in Katie Tompkins’ classroom at Cedar Ridge Elementary School in Eden Prairie peek excitedly down the hall, waiting for the North Star Therapy Animal (NSTA) team to visit. The dogs, sometimes golden retrievers, border collies or mini labradoodles, come with a trainer for an hour to interact with the students. Dog-themed books come off the shelves, and students gather with the furry-eared friends on comfy blankets ready to read aloud.
Tompkins, a teacher for more than 25 years, noticed that interacting with animals added a special element of learning for her students. “It provides a non-judgmental, calming way for children to practice reading aloud,” Tompkins says. “It promotes a love of books and animals that I know will last forever. It’s something out of the ordinary that attaches positive feelings to learning.”
Formed in October 2007, NSTA provides therapeutic services through pet-owner teams across the Twin Cities metropolitan area at schools, libraries, adult day care centers, hospitals, shelters, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. While many facilities already provide services to rehabilitate and help individuals, teaming up with NSTA enhances those services and adds an element of love and attention for the client through animal companionship.
In 2011, the group became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It is comprised of more than 125 volunteers and all of the members are an owner-pet team registered through Pet Partners, a group specializing in animal assisted therapy training. While the pet-therapy teams consist of owners and their dogs, NSTA also has therapy teams with guinea pigs, cats, rabbits and even miniature horses.
NSTA also visits senior citizens once a month at Prairie Adult Care in Chanhassen. “We’re a day center that specializes in Alzheimer and memory care,” says Kathleen Fitzgerald, owner and director of the site. “[The seniors] come to our program to have a structured day with exercise, nutrition, proper mediation and social interaction, so we try to provide that quality of life for them.”
“It’s all about exercising the mind and the body,” Fitzgerald says. She notices NSTA visits are an additional way the seniors’ time there is significantly enhanced. “It’s tremendous for the folks, who are no longer able to have animals anymore. It’s feeling like that they have a pet again,” Fitzgerald adds. “It just uplifts their spirits, so if they are having an off day or a down day, as soon as the pet therapist comes, it just changes their whole demeanors.”
In partnership with NSTA, the Carver County Library system also provides “Tails for Reading.” Once a month at the Victoria Library, families with school-aged children are invited to stop in and read for a 15-minute time slot with one of the dogs.
“A child can read without any pressure, and the teams really interact well with the kids, encouraging them to do what they can when they read,” says Jodi Edstrom, youth services librarian in charge of the children’s and teen programming. “Our dog here is named Pluto, a big golden retriever. They put a big blanket out and lots of books, and it’s just a really inviting experience for families to participate in.”
Edstrom is encouraged by the impact the animals and pet owners make on the young readers while volunteering their time through NSTA. “I had one family with a young boy,” she says. “His mom said just seeing him sit and read aloud was a huge accomplishment. He can read, but he’s nervous to do that in front of other people, and this is just really building his confidence, so what a great life skill in a positive environment.”