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Pitts teams up with her pet

NEW HAVEN — Fourteen-year-old Amy Pitts likes animals. She has a horse and a three-year-old Sheltie named Ginger.
The New Haven teen recently began sharing that love for animals with folks at the Eastview retirement community in Middlebury. She put her dog and herself through a therapy dog training, and now visits residents there and gives them the opportunity to stroke Ginger and reminisce about the pets they’d owned over the years.
“That’s one thing people miss, interaction with animals they have had in their lives,” said Betsey Hedly, the nurse program manager in the residential care unit at Eastview. “It’s very calming and … and it’s nice one-one-one time with (Amy), who is charming young person — the kind of person they might not get a chance to interact with.”
Last October, Pitts became interested in therapy dogs after she attended a clinic in Middlebury put on by Therapy Dog of Vermont. Her mom, Kirsten Pitts, said she was inspired to become certified to use therapy dogs but was a bit lost on how to achieve it as that organization does not provide training. In addition, Ginger faced a challenge, too: She needed to be a little better socialized if she was going to meet a lot of strangers.
In February, she began exploring therapy dogs as her eighth-grade Challenge project at Mount Abraham Union Middle School. For three months, she met with mentor Phoebe Barash and her dog, Coreopsis. She shadowed them on their visits to Wake Robin’s memory care unit. Pitts also met with Peg Jarvis and her dog, Magic, and shadowed them at a “Reading With Magic” program at Bristol’s Lawrence Library.
To get Ginger up to speed, Jarvis went on walks with Pitts and Ginger to help train and socialize the dog. They also took obedience classes with Caroline Engvall and had private lessons.
In May and June, Pitts and her pet went through a four-part Therapy Dog of Vermont test to become a certified Therapy Dog Team.
“We had to train Ginger to be obedient and walk on leash,” Pitts said. She had to particularly work on refraining from jumping on visitors and from eating food off the floor.
“And we went to a nursing home,” she added.
They earned their certification on June 10.
The teenager’s parents, Kirsten and Bob Pitts, were impressed.
“I couldn’t be prouder of her persistence and dedication to the process,” Kirsten Pitts said. “She achieved something extraordinary.”
The newly certified team made their first official visit to Eastview on July 28.
“We took the dog from person to person, and they pet her, asked me questions about her and told me about dogs they used to have,” Pitts said.
Although Amy Pitts said it was a little scary the first time she took the therapy dog to Eastview, she’s made another visit and plans to do more. She’s much more sure of herself after a couple visits.
“I’m confident now,” she said.
Ginger, too, has gained confidence.
“She’s definitely warmed up to it,” Pitts said. “I think she likes to be near people and to be pet.
“People really liked her.”
Hedly explained that many of the residents in her unit at Eastview are in their 80s and 90s, and they had animals in their lives until they moved into residential care. Seeing and touching a well-behaved animal brings not only emotional benefits, but physical ones as well, she said.
“That physical contact is important,” Hedly said. “It’s very therapeutic.”
Pitts sees her volunteer work with the therapy dog in pretty straightforward terms.
“We’re a team,” she said. “We go to nursing homes, schools or hospitals and let people pet the dog and relax and just be happy.”

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