Lending a Helping Paw

After Georgann Crotty’s son left home for college, she had a lot of spare time. Her dog, Princess, was also feeling a bit bored, Crotty said, with no high school kids around to keep her entertained.

The solution for both dog and owner turned out to be something called Project PUP.

Project PUP – an acronym for Pets Uplifting People – is based out of Largo and is affiliated with the University of Florida. The idea, as the name suggests, is for animals, mostly dogs but also including people-friendly cats, rabbits and ferrets, to visit nursing homes and hospitals to offer a distraction to patients and their families from the stress they live with every day.

Project PUP began in 1985 with only four volunteer pet owners but has grown to 300. Project PUP president, Betty Luttier, said many volunteers own several animals registered with the program and it was hard to say how many pets are involved.

Luttier did say, however, that there are 250 facilities in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties on the organization’s contact list.

She said all pets are screened by behavior specialists, obedience trainers and others experienced in handling animals. Before acceptance to the program becomes final, an animal must behave when introduced to a large group of people, not retaliate if petted too roughly and prove unafraid of wheelchairs and walkers.

“Sometimes they (animals) get scared of wheelchairs,” Luttier said. “They say ‘Oh, my gosh, furniture can move. I didn’t know that.'”

Crotty said Princess’ patience is often tested during her visits to Shriner’s Hospital for Children on the USF campus. Sometimes a child will accidentally hug the dog too tightly or run over her paw with his or her wheelchair.

But Princess, Crotty said, never becomes more than slightly startled in these situations.

Princess also visits patients at Beverly Health and Rehabilitation Center in Brandon and sometimes, Crotty said, the elderly are calmer and easier for Princess to tolerate.

“She just seems more relaxed when she’s there,” Crotty said. Once becoming an official Project PUP pet and owner team, it is often the owner who has a change of mind, or heart, about the program.

“Some people (volunteers) are not prepared to see other people in a really bad condition,” Luttier said, referring to nursing home and hospital patients. “Or sometimes they get used to certain patients and can’t handle it when they aren’t there anymore.”

As for Crotty, she said she’s had nothing but the greatest experience since becoming involved with the program.

“I think it gives you a real appreciation for what’s in the world,” she said. “I feel like I have been given a privilege. I’m making real friends and it’s so rewarding.”

Crotty adopted Princess 11 years ago from the Humane Society in Marietta, Ga., after the dog was found alone in an Atlanta parking lot when she was a few months old. Though Princess is “a mutt,” Crotty said her dog is an example of the ideal Project Pup canine.

“The dogs either have it or they don’t,” Crotty said. “Princess loves people and has always been good with them. She’s very obedient and very emotional. If someone is crying, she will go and sit with them.”

Princess visits Shriner’s Hospital every Tuesday and has become a fixture in the lives of the children being treated at the facility. Renee O’Neal, child life coordinator at the hospital said there is a definite change in the patients’ attitudes on Tuesday.”Princess really lifts their spirits. (Having Princess visit) really helps to motivate the children to get out of bed. She’s an unconditional friend that plays with no questions asked.”

Cristi Whitehead has a 13-year-old son who has been a patient at the hospital for several years. Whitehead and her younger daughter, Lexi, who is not a patient, often spend 14 hours at the hospital during her son’s treatment. Visits from Princess definitely help both her children, and herself, to live through sometimes boring or difficult days.

“This is a great perk,” Whitehead said. “It’s great for siblings and helps to entertain them. It also gives me a break.”

  • Contact Rachel Pleasant at oraclefeatures@yahoo.com

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