AaTs of Massachusetts provides canine comfort to manyFeb 25, 2021 08:36AM ● By Christine Galeone
An AaTs therapy dog team visits surgical residents at UMass. Submitted by AaTs
t’s not hard to imagine the stress that surgical residents have had to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Kim Fontaine, the president and director of Animal-assisted Therapy services of Massachusetts, didn’t have to imagine what it was like to see some of that stress relieved from the faces of surgical residents of the UMass Memorial and UMass University campuses. Fontaine said that the AaTs therapy dog teams’ visits to those hospitals were among the teams’ favorite visits during the pandemic.
“Seeing the worn faces of the surgical staff suddenly brighten up when they noticed the therapy dog teams in their break room was a moment I will never forget,” Fontaine recalled. “Soon, the residents were laying on the floor cuddling with the dogs; some dogs sat on the students! One surgeon remarked, ‘This made my day,’ to which another surgeon replied, ‘This made my year!’”
Helping those surgical residents cope with overwhelming stress is just one way that the Millbury-based nonprofit has been strengthening the community. Through its programs and services, AaTs of Massachusetts has been bringing people joy and the healing power of the bond between humans and animals since 2018. And Fontaine refuses to let the pandemic interfere with the life-enriching comfort that the nonprofit brings to the Blackstone Valley and beyond.
While the original AaTs was founded in Connecticut in 2009, Fontaine earned her Professional Dog Trainer Certification from Animal Behavior College through an apprenticeship with Chris Patella, the founder of AaTs of Connecticut. The mission of both locations is to “provide adults and children with physical, cognitive and psychosocial disabilities the opportunity to experience the power of the unique human-animal bond as therapeutic intervention, thus promoting lifelong health and wellness.”
AaTs of Massachusetts strives to accomplish that mission and more by offering animal-assisted therapy to individuals and groups at places such as schools, where the nonprofit provides reading programs, educational programs and life skills/ special needs programs, senior living facilities and colleges. It also offers training to become a credentialed AaTs therapy dog team.
In addition to running the nonprofit, Fontaine and her dog Keeva serve as the primary K9 unit for the Central Massachusetts Critical Incident Stress Management Team. They are also a K9 First Responders dog team. In their work, they help provide psychological support to first responders and survivors after a traumatic incident.
Like most nonprofits, AaTs has faced challenges wrought by the pandemic. Fontaine said that there has been an abrupt elimination of some of the nonprofit’s teams’ routinely scheduled visits. Looking ahead, she noted that it will also be challenging to fulfill the growing need to train additional therapy dog teams while meeting mandates concerning gathering restrictions and social distancing.
But while the pandemic has created new obstacles for the nonprofit, Fontaine said that it’s imperative to keep AaTs safely operating. “Now, more than ever, we will need mental health assets as we all endure and recover from the global pandemic,” Fontaine explained. “These are unprecedented times! A credentialed therapy dog team is just another tool in the toolbox towards building resiliency following a critical incident.”
Kim Fontaine’s Therapy Dogs Keeva (left) and Tomo. Photo by Karyn Marquis Photography
So, how can people support AaTs of Massachusetts during these challenging times? Fontaine said that people can help the nonprofit by requesting therapy dog visits. “While some of our therapy teams work on a regular basis as school therapy dogs or police comfort dogs, other teams are chomping at the bit to visit with the people in their community,” Fontaine shared. “We are currently offering all first therapy dog visits free of charge.”
More information about the nonprofit is available on the Animal-assisted Therapy services website, www.aatsma.org, on its Facebook page or by calling 774-242-0893.
If you would like to suggest a Blackstone Valley nonprofit or initiative for this series, please contact Christine at [email protected].