FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan., June 30, 2011 -- When Joanie Linn and Abby, a golden retriever, step out of the elevator, staff and patients at Munson Army Health Center are waiting to meet them.Gulden Taylor, medical support assistant, said she couldn’t wait for Abby’s visit.“It feels so good to pet her. It takes the bad energy out,” she said. “The last time she was here there was a line of people waiting to see her.”As members of the Human Animal Bond, or HAB, organization, Joanie and Abby visit places throughout the community -- schools, libraries, nursing homes and hospitals. The HAB dogs, and one cat, pass temperament tests and veterinary exams to make sure they are safe to interact with medical patients, children and other members of the community.Abby didn’t seem to mind when a child with special needs pulled on her tail or buried her face in Abby’s fur at Camp SOAR earlier this summer. She sits calmly when groups of people rush to greet her. At MAHC, she seems to instinctively pick out the most nervous children waiting for a medical appointment, the Soldier waiting with a cane for a physical therapy appointment, or the most stressed staff members.Susan Polk, resiliency trainer at MAHC, said that’s part of the idea behind having HAB dogs visit.Helping reduce stress for staff is just as important as helping to reduce stress for patients, she said. Sometimes, medical staff and caretakers can experience secondary post-traumatic stress disorder from assisting patients.“You get overwhelmed sometimes with the pain the other person is experiencing,” she said.To help combat stress, Polk enlisted the help of HAB dogs to visit the health center twice each month.“(Staff) know when they’re coming,” she said. “They look for the dogs. We have a lot of people who enjoy their calming influence.”Kendell Casey, HAB director, said the nonprofit organization has been in existence on Fort Leavenworth for about 15 years. The volunteers are all personal pet owners, so all the HAB animals are also pets. Volunteers are a mix of retirees, active-duty service members, family members, Department of the Army civilians and other community members.Casey said there are five similar HAB organizations on other U.S. military installations.“We’re focused on promoting enrichment of human life through a caring relationship with animals,” she said.Casey and her Newfoundland, Annabelle, regularly visit the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the psychiatric patients at Cushing Memorial Hospital and The Guidance Center, a community behavioral health outpatient clinic, all in Leavenworth. Casey, who is working on a master’s degree in social work, said volunteers sign confidentiality agreements beforehand.The HAB animals also visit special needs classrooms in Fort Leavenworth schools, the Combined Arms Research Library’s reading program and Lansing Community Library’s reading program.Casey noted that as a nonprofit organization, HAB is supported by donations and grants, including funds from the Fort Leavenworth Thrift Shop and the Fort Leavenworth Spouses’ Club.Casey said there are many benefits of animal visits, supported by research. Petting a dog can decrease the human’s heart rate, release endorphins and reduce stress, she said. In the medical field, studies have shown that patients who are visited by therapy animals have shorter stays in hospitals, Casey said.“They’re always glad to see you,” she said. “It’s always a positive interaction with a therapy dog.”
Kelly Rebeschini recently started volunteering in HAB with her Shih Tzu, Magee.“He made a lady smile at a nursing home who never smiles,” she said.Casey said HAB is always looking for volunteers and for new groups of people to visit. HAB recruits at Post Activities and Registration Day, Retiree Appreciation Day and other events on post.To find out more about HAB, visit the organization’s website at www.ftleavenworthhab.org. HAB meets at 6 p.m. the last Wednesday of every month in the basement of Country Club Bank, 401 Delaware St. in Leavenworth.