Student’s best friend

Published 7:47 pm Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hand in Paw volunteer Cindy Bowman and her dog, Sally, read to an Oak Mountain Elementary School student.

Hand in Paw brings animal-assisted therapy to local schools

BY KATIE MCDOWELL / Lifestyles Editor

On Wednesday morning a sandy-colored dog walked into Hayden Belisle’s classroom at Oak Mountain Elementary School.

Sally, a 3-year-old mutt, spent the next hour and a half being read to, petted and walked by a handful of students. Sally and her owner, Cindy Bowman, are volunteers with Hand in Paw, a non-profit organization based in Birmingham that serves children and adults with physical, emotional, educational or psychological needs in a four-county area.

“We have three programs and we partner with about 60 different sites,” said Liz Wilson, Hand in Paw’s program director.

Hand in Paw’s three programs are:

  • Sit, Stay, Read – Teams visit local schools to work with students who are reading below grade level.
  • Petscription – Teams visit medical facilities to accompany patients during procedures, assist in therapy and other services.
  • Pawsitive Living – Teams participate in a 12-week program in group homes to teach life skills to adolescents.

Oak Mountain Elementary School follows a different program from the traditional Sit, Stay, Read program. Belisle, a school counselor, pairs Sally and Bowman with students with a variety of emotional or behavioral issues, including anxiety, low self-esteem, as well as new students.

“It helps me build rapport with the students,” she said. “It’s a great motivational tool for kids to give them something to look forward to, to get excited about.”

Bowman and Sally spend about 20 minutes with each student. The students bring a book and read to the Hand in Paw team, stopping occasionally to give Sally a scratch.

Bowman and Sally began working at OMES last year. Bowman said she first considered volunteering for Hand in Paw after seeing the dog interact with her two school-age children.

“When I saw how good she was, I knew it was something to do,” Bowman said.

Another Hand in Paw team will join OMES this year and Belisle said she’s pleased with the program so far.

“It’s just gone beautifully,” she said. “The feedback we received from teachers and students and parents has been overwhelmingly positive.

Wilson said the organization has more than 100 teams, including one rabbit and one cat. The animals must pass an intensive four-month application process and training program before they can begin working for the organization. The animals must be re-certified every two years.

To learn more about the organization, visit