I am a dog person. It doesn’t take much to get me talking about how much my dog enhances my life. How she brings people together….makes strangers smile…and gets me out of bed when I would sometimes just really rather sleep in past 5:30am.
Talk to most anyone with an animal in their lives, and they’ll likely tell you a similar story. But it turns out there is actually a growing body of scientific data backing up all of our anecdotal tales of love and healing when it comes to our pets.
Animals have been used in formal therapeutic settings since the 18th Century, to help both mentally and physically ill people cope with and recover from injury, illness and other challenges. However, it’s only recently that scientific research exploring exactly how this human-animal connection helps us has really started to take off.
Measuredoutcome.org was asked to take a closer look at three Ottawa area programs that work with animals and humans in a health and healing capacity: Community Veterinary Outreach, the Ottawa Humane Society LEAD Program, and the Ottawa Therapy Dogs. Our latest report looks at these three programs, along with the challenges and accomplishments that come with working in a field that is so old, and yet still so unexplored.
And this really is where so many of the challenges that these programs face lie.
Each of the programs featured in our latest report shows a high levels of participant satisfaction. And the increasing demand year over year for each of these programs in their communities is a strong indicator of how much their services are valued.
Donors and program managers need this feedback. The happiness scales and the testimonials are crucial to telling the complete evaluation story.
But what about the numbers? What about the hard data? The science?
This is where human-animal connection programs are just starting to enter into a renaissance, of sorts. Universities and associations worldwide are starting to work to figure out how to accurately measure and quantify how and why our animals seem to have such a remarkably positive impact on our health and well-being.
This is a rapidly growing field of research and data. We have listed a few dozen resources in our report, so please refer to this for more information. And if you choose to go down the Google wormhole, I guarantee you even more fascinating reading.
One challenge that we have clearly identified for the programs in this report is the need to keep up with this research. To read…to constantly be learning…to collaborate with academics and researchers… to work with other agencies in the same field…to collect and share knowledge with each other.
Hospitals and universities are beginning to fund research in this area. They are starting to look at how they can measure and evaluate these kinds of programs, and they are sharing and publishing. Team up with these hubs…and if you can’t join them, READ about what they are doing, and how their work might apply to your own evaluation and development goals.
Working with limited funding and resources and managing growing programs on a primarily volunteer staff is a huge challenge. These programs are not going to run out of requests for services anytime soon. Agencies that rely on volunteers are always at risk if a key person steps away, or if the volunteer base dwindles.
Keeping up with internal development and keeping volunteer training and board development top of mind is also crucial for these agencies.
And then there’s that limited funding problem. This isn’t a challenge that is unique to these three agencies, or to any program in this – and many other – fields. But it does lie on the agencies to educate and communicate with the community, with funders, and with their volunteers and staff. Agencies must collaborate with each other and with researchers and universities to help everyone understand the actual value of these programs.
We have made six recommendations in this report – areas for these three programs, and others in this field – to consider…to develop…to work on.
But all of the data and recommendations in the world won’t mean anything if they’re only on paper.
Evaluation of both programs and systems is something that agencies need to undertake not only to help funders understand their program effectiveness, but also to develop insights about their own systems and impact – both for the communities they serve, and the communities that support them.
It’s about learning, listening, and improving. It’s about building a solid and nimble measurement system that allows communication to all stakeholders –
The challenges that these three programs face aren’t unique. But if the challenges are met head on, everyone – the participants, the volunteers, the agencies and the communities they serve, and the animals who bring us together – can win.
You can download or read the full report here: More Than A Best Friend