PET PROJECT: Pals For Life’s Paula Kielich (left) makes the rounds at Haverford Estates//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Alex is autistic, with a gaze that wanders as often as his attention. He doesn’t like reading—certainly not out loud. But there he sits, a student at Valley Forge Educational Services’ Vanguard High School, reading a book to Princess Leia. He even shows her the pictures. “I think she likes this book,” he tells Princess Leia’s human mom, Pinar Cohen of Malvern.
The dog is a harlequin Great Dane, trained to work with people who have special needs through the Wayne-based Pals For Life, which holds animal-assisted therapy events at schools, senior facilities, libraries and camps in the Main Line area. Paula Kielich created the organization 31 years ago. Back then, she was a 30-year-old executive at Colonial Penn Life Insurance. “I had a multimillion-dollar budget and a nice office, but I wasn’t happy,” she says.
One evening, as she was walking to her Bryn Mawr apartment from the SEPTA station, she saw an older woman holding a dog. “There was such joy in her face,” Kielich recalls. “It took my breath away.”
At about the same time, Kielich got a newsletter from the Pennsylvania SPCA announcing the cessation of programs that brought shelter dogs from its five branches to nursing homes throughout the Delaware Valley. She decided to set up a nonprofit that would use the SPCA’s pets and visit those same facilities.
While it sounded like a great idea, Kielich had zero experience running nonprofits. She’d have to leave that high-paying job at Colonial Penn and live off of her savings until grants and donations could be secured. “I just knew that it was my calling,” she says. “There was a need, and I believed I could fill it.”
On March 15, 1985, Pals For Life was born. Restarting the visits to nursing homes was Kielich’s first accomplishment. Then she put up tables at malls and community events asking for volunteers to help bring the SPCA dogs to nursing homes. She got so many that she needed more animals, so she contacted Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals in Radnor and Center City’s Morris Animal Refuge. “It was an opportunity to show people what great animals the shelters have to offer,” Kielich says. “People would adopt the animals or get their friends to adopt.”
By 1990, thanks to grants that her mother wrote, Kielich had obtained donated office space and a part-time program manager. She also had lots of volunteers—human and canine. She established the test that all dogs have to pass before they go on therapy visits. They can’t jump on people or grab for treats, and they must stay calm around loud noises and when they’re touched by strangers. These are big demands. “Most dogs don’t pass the first time,” Kielich says. “We tell the owners exactly what areas they need to work on, and then they come back and get retested.”
Pals For Life is now species neutral, and cats and turtles don’t have to pass a test. Kielich has also opened the program to guinea pigs, a miniature horse, a leashed ferret, and a duck.
But Marble is the real rock star of the bunch. The Dwarf Hotot rabbit is small and quiet, with snow-white fur and shiny black eyes. The therapy bunny was in serious demand during a recent event at Villanova University—one of the stress-relief programs Pals For Life runs at local colleges, where students can pet and snuggle with the animals.
“Quite a few schools want us to come once a month because of increased stress levels they are seeing in students,” says Kristen Abbott, program director of Pals For Life. “There’s so much anxiety, especially because of the threat of violence in the world and on campus. It’s not an easy time to be a college student.”
Marble is also a smash at Pals For Life’s reading programs. Abbott takes the pets to libraries in Aston, Berwyn and Easton and to schools in Center City, Springfield and Valley Forge. Kids of any reading ability can come, age 4 through fifth grade.
At VFES, Abbott explains to the students how the program works. The dogs and their human handlers—and Marble—are spread throughout the library. The kids are divided into groups of two or three, and they take turns reading to each animal. After a few minutes, they rotate to different ones. “The pets don’t laugh at them if they mispronounce a word,” Abbott says. “Teachers have said that their students show more progress with the animals than with them.”
That certainly seems to be the case at VFES. A girl reads Around the World in 80 Days to Lucy, a black cockapoo. Meanwhile, Alex and his Smurf book move from Princess Leia to Delia, a mixed-breed dog rescued from a shelter in Georgia.
“Why are her ears moving?” he asks.
“Because she’s listening to you read,” Delia’s owner tells him. “And it’s making her happy.”
Requirements for a certified therapy dog
Source: Pet Partners
1. Welcomes interactions with strangers of different ages, races and genders.
2. Is well- behaved in new situations and around unusual equipment.
3. Acts comfortable around crowds, activity and noise.
4. Can be pet and hugged without jumping, cowering, barking or biting.
5. Tolerates being bathed, brushed, and having nails clipped in preparation for visits.
6. Follows cues for “sit,” “down” and “stay”—even when there are distractions.