In 2002, a local Montgomery ISD teacher discovered that integrating her Labrador retriever into the classroom made even the most shy and timid students excited to read.
Fifteen years later, that teacher's innovation has inspired and evolved into Montgomery Pet Partners, a nonprofit with 60 dog handler teams that visit 15 schools, five senior care facilities, four libraries and one hospital on a weekly basis.
“We believe in the bond between a person and a dog, and that you can utilize that bond to bring happiness to people in the community,” President Wendy Hoffner said. “There’s a lot of people hurting out there, so it’s great when a dog can be that conduit.”
To be a team with MPP, both the dog and handler must pass 26 exercises in the organization’s evaluation process to become licensed. Workshops, mock drills, orientation and shadowing are all a part of the process to ensure a dog and handler are suited for the job.
“Any dog with the right temperament, behavior skills and handler can do this," Hoffner said. "The most important thing is for the dog to be able to connect with people."
Although MPP has expanded to other areas of service, its primary focus continues to be the Reading Education Assistance Dogs program through which teams visit elementary and middle schools in Conroe, Magnolia and Tomball ISDs as well as libraries in the Montgomery County Library System to work with at-risk and life-skills students. At-risk students are typically students recommended by school staff who may have a difficult home life, a learning disability or are on the borderline of passing standardized tests.
According to MPP, studies have shown that visitation with dogs can lower blood pressure and reduce stress in seniors. To promote these health benefits, MPP has expanded its services to include five local assisted living and memory care facilities.
“Ten minutes with a dog at a senior facility creates a month of happiness because they’re fighting loneliness,” Hoffner said. “Many of the seniors don’t get many visitors so for the dogs to show up for them is great.”
MPP’s hospital program is used at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital and TIRR Memorial Hermann The Woodlands.
Teams that work with TIRR Memorial Hermann The Woodlands patients have a more functional purpose as they are used in physical, occupational and speech therapy programs.
“TIRR patients are more motivated to work hard with an animal than they are with a piece of equipment,” said Dean Nistetter, MPP director of hospitals and senior facilities. “We incorporate the dogs into their exercises to work on mobility and dexterity, and what may seem so simple to us is really very significant.”
Although MPP has experienced significant growth over the past 15 years, Hoffner and Nistetter said they have also experienced an increased demand for their services. As a result, the organization has had to develop a wait list.
Both MPP officials said they hope to continue experiencing growth to keep up with countywide demand and eliminate the need for a wait list.
“In the business world, I was that cold person without a heart—I’ve discovered I have a heart through these animals,” Nistetter said. “These connections just touch your heart, and when you see them happen—that’s why we do what we do.”