Helping hands for fuzzy paws




At a glance
Comfort Creatures of North MS is a nonprofit, non-denominational, Christian volunteer group dedicated to serving people in our area by providing Animal Assisted Activities amp& Therapies to those in need at nursing homes, hospitals, schools, mental health centers, and other agencies.
To request animal visits, or to register your pet as a Comfort Creature, contact comfortcreatures@comcast.net or visit www.comfortcreatures.org

By Emily Le Coz
Daily Journal
TUPELO – Sometimes the best treatment comes from the least likely source.
In the case of Comfort Creatures of North Mississippi, that source has four legs and lots of fur. The nonprofit organization enlists the help of roughly two dozen cats and dogs who perform therapeutic services throughout the region.
Rudie, a 4-year-old Miniature Poodle, provides a safe audience for children struggling to read. Charlie, a 1-year-old Golden Retriever, assists patients with their physical therapy. Bella, an 8-year-old Kangal Dog, soothes those being treated for mental illnesses.
The pets don’t have medical degrees – just a few weeks of behavioral training – but their free services are increasingly in demand.
Lisa Abstein founded the group in 2006 with her dog Larkin and about five other human-pet teams. It has since quadrupled in size. And though Abstein no longer leads the vast network of participants, she and her pooch still make the rounds, visiting patients and children and the elderly.
“I was tired of seeing sad people,” said Abstein, who quit her job as a mental health counselor to start Comfort Creatures. “I wanted to make people happy.”
Brandon Holland, a 23-year-old patient at Longtown Rehabilitation Center in Tupelo, broke into a sparkling smile when he saw Charlie trot into the room one day last week. By nuzzling him and passing him a ball, Charlie helps Holland with his fine and gross motor skills – something he lost after suffering traumatic brain injury in a 2005 automobile accident.
“I don’t know how to put it, there’s just something about the animals, he wants to move his hands more,” said Melissa Holland, the young man’s mother while watching her son interact with the dog. “He opens and closes his hands more, reaches for the dog. He’ll feed him a treat and rub him.”
Holland’s occupational therapist, Melinda Lamon, said Charlie offers another avenue for treatment – one that makes her patients smile.
The dogs also offer more than happiness, said Charlie’s owner and teammate, Tricia Goldman. They also offer solace.
Goldman recalled a day earlier this summer when she and Charlie attended a flag-raising ceremony at The Sanctuary Hospice House, one of the 14 sites Comfort Creatures visits in the region. While they were there, they met a 10-year-old boy whose grandmother had just passed away.
“When the little boy saw Charlie, suddenly his pain seemed to have lifted a bit,” Goldman said. “He hugged Charlie, crying and even laughing with him. Charlie stayed with him until the pastor was ready to say a prayer.”
Goldman now heads Comfort Creatures and said it’s been the most rewarding chapter in her life. She and Charlie spend their days visiting people and bringing joy, she said.
The animals also like it, said Betty Caldwell, who takes her reading-education assistant dogs to the library and public schools to help children learn to read.
On Thursday, she and Rudie were at the Lee County Library for their PAWS to R.E.A.D. Program.
“He gets excited when I put that harness on him,” Caldwell said, “because he knows he’ll see people.”
The group is now seeking other human-companion teams to join them. Animals must complete a six-week training course and pass a certification exam before they can begin.
Goldman said a new course will be offered in the coming days.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com. Also read her blog, The Government Grind, at NEMS360.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal