Q&A: Karen Armsey, Director of H.A.B.I.T.
Dogs, cats, rabbits, and their owners volunteer through H.A.B.I.T. (Human Animal Bond in Tennessee) to reach out with animal-assisted therapy to many different vulnerable groups. Dogs might comfort and engage people during chemo, physical rehab, or foster care proceedings, for example, while cats visit nursing and retirement homes just to hang out and maybe agree to be snuggled.
Made up of representatives from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, volunteers from the community, and private veterinary practitioners, the Knoxville-based group has expanded into the Tri-Cities. Karen Armsey has volunteered for H.A.B.I.T. for 15 years with a number of four-legged loved ones, and been the nonprofit’s program director for the past 10 years as well.
H.A.B.I.T. will hold its major annual fundraiser, “Bidding and BBQ,” on Tuesday, March 28, 5 p.m. at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
Are some of the therapy animals rescues themselves?
Around 70 percent of our H.A.B.I.T. dogs are mix breeds and most of the pets in our programs are from a rescue situation, even the rabbits. Personally, every one of my H.A.B.I.T. dogs has been from a rescue and I have had seven. I always love the stories of H.A.B.I.T. dogs that have overcome the odds. They show the people they visit that if they can do it, anyone can do it. We have dogs that are cancer survivors visit at the cancer centers, and dogs with movement issues that visit a rehab unit. We used to have a pit bull who visited the teenagers at a behavioral hospital. This dog was great with the teenage boys! These young men were sure that no one in the world understood them and what they were going through. Then in walks this dog whose breed is often misunderstood and she was making the world a better place.
How do you choose who goes where?
You never know which dog is going to work in a location. We have an Italian Greyhound who goes to a cancer center and the clients love it because she is like a hot water bottle who will lay on their lap and take a nap while they are getting chemo. These dogs go into situations where clients are sure their world is never going to be the same, and the dogs show them that it will be okay. The dogs don’t care if the child is in foster care, or if the adult is losing their hair because of chemo, or even if all the human can do is squeal with happiness because the dog is there. The dog is there and focused on them at that moment, not what they were before or what they will be in the future.
Our H.A.B.I.T. cats do their own kind of magic. They don’t always want to sit with a person, but that is okay. People who like cats just like watching cats be cats. They enjoy watching the cat explore the room, and they feel honored when the cat decides that it is time to rest and will sit in their lap. We consider our work a success when we have left people feeling better because they were able to interact with a great team, that for a few moments in a stress-filled day they were able to not worry and just be.
What about your own dogs?
I have three H.A.B.I.T. dogs right now and they all have their own skill and talent. My big boy Nash is 11 years old, moves slow, and likes to visit locations where he can just walk around a bit and then lay in the floor and let people come to him. His favorite location is the Foster Care Review Board, here in Knox County. This event happens once a month and we sit in the floor of the courtroom and let the kids who want to come over and talk to us do so, while the adults talk adult stuff. This lets the kids not have to hear things that may upset them, but they can still be in the room in case they are needed. He also likes special events where he gets to visit lots of people. We recently did the Remote Area Medical clinic and he loved walking around and visiting with the people that were waiting and with the volunteers and medical staff.
My girl Shelby loves teenage boys, so she loves to do the court dog program. Because Shelby is leash aggressive, I have to be sure that she only visits on days that she knows the other H.A.B.I.T. dogs. When we are able to visit she will always find the teenage boy that is the most stressed and will sit with him, demanding attention. She also enjoys working with the deputies at the court.
Shiloh is more of an all-around girl. She is happy to visit just about anywhere, but because she is still young and energetic I do not take her to locations with people who are fragile. She was happy to work last week’s Mardi Growl for hours and stand and meet people, but she is also happy to visit with kids and lay on her side so that they can rub her belly.
Does a dog or cat have to be super-sociable to be a H.A.B.I.T. ambassador, or able to do really cool stuff?
We are not looking for perfect dogs, cats, or rabbits. If we were, none of my dogs would make the cut! We are looking for human/animal teams that have the heart to serve. We have learned that if the team has the heart, if there is an issue, we can work on that. However if the dog is perfectly trained, but does not have the heart to serve, it is hard to teach heart. Cool tricks are not needed, they can sometimes get in the way of the visit, the human is so much wanting to show the tricks that they forget that they are on the visit to interact.
What are the strictest rules about becoming a H.A.B.I.T. animal?
Every animal gets a medical and behavioral evaluation when they start, and a medical evaluation every year they serve. Dogs and cats must have vaccinations for rabies. Behaviorwise, the dog must walk calmly on a leash and not jump up on people. You can’t use a choke or prong collar but harnesses or head halters are okay. No flexi leashes. A number of people had never had their dog on a leash and while the dog would stay by their side and would listen to them when they asked them to do something, it is just not safe to have an unleashed dog on a visit, or even walking to the building for the visit, because you just never know what is going to happen.
Cats can either be leash trained, carried, or in a tram where they visit people. Rabbits are normally in a basket.
Do you have any particular fundraising challenges currently?
H.A.B.I.T. is a nonprofit outreach program of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. People see this and think, “Great, they have funding.” But in reality, while UTCVM does provide 45 percent of our funding, that covers liability coverage, office space, postage, phones, and the day-to-day stuff. The rest comes from donations and dues and fees. The agreement that we have with University of Tennessee says that we must end the year in the black, or they will stop the program. There was one year where we did that with an extra 50 cents, but we did it. We work very hard to raise money so that we are never again afraid that we will have to close.
Could your scope of services increase?
When I started as a volunteer 15 years ago our program was only in the nine counties around Knoxville, and mostly in health care situations. Today we are in 20 counties, and our school program, Ruff Reading, is the largest part of what we do. Before the economic downturn in 2008 we had goals to be statewide at this point, but funding was not there for the needed staff. We still hope to go statewide someday, but at this time we are working hard to staff the locations in East Tennessee that want volunteers and to find locations for volunteers in areas like the Tri-Cities.
When did you know you would want to do this sort of thing when you grew up?
As a kid I was sure that I was either going to be a zoologist or a symphonic conductor—I did not think that the fact that I could not play an instrument would be an issue. As I got older, these goals fell to the side. When the job that I have now became open, I had a job that I loved in human medicine, and I applied because I was at that point in my career where I was trying to figure out what was next. This job changed my life. I am not saying that every day is a great one, or that I am always the best person for the job, but I can honestly say I am a better person because of the work that I do and the people that I work with.
Does watching the pets and people interact ever make you cry? Do funny things happen, too?
Just this morning my co-worker Ruth Sapp and I were looking at a picture of one of our H.A.B.I.T. dogs interacting with a student, and I noticed that there were tears in our eyes. I am always amazed at the work H.A.B.I.T. animals are able to do with the people they interact with. They make people smile and laugh at times when there is very little to smile or laugh about. These animals are the best part of us.
• H.A.B.I.T. sponsors animal-assisted therapy programs in a variety of settings, utilizing volunteer pet owners and their loving pets.
• It currently has over 400 members, 250 of these being active volunteers involved in 70 different programs.
How You Can Help
• If you think a particular facility could use one of H.A.B.I.T.’s animal-assisted therapy teams, bring it up and see if they’re interested.
• If you have a great animal and have the time, think about joining H.A.B.I.T. See its website for info; it also has volunteer information meetings in Knoxville on May 17 and in Johnson City on March 21. (Humans only, no pets at these meetings, which are mandatory before volunteering,)
• Donations always help! See above for info on its fundraiser.
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