Long dominated by dogs, the therapy-animal field is gaining diversity in the form of guinea pigs, rabbits and even chickens.
Seven-year-old Ainsley Arnold needed someplace safe and welcoming where she could practice her out-loud reading skills. So her mom brought her to the library. Not to join a reading group with other kids, or even a librarian-led story time. She came to the library to read to a specially trained guinea pig named Daphne, who sits contentedly when petted and likes to follow along with children's stories.
"Parents and caretakers can't help but correct young readers," said Rosalyn Hope, a children's librarian in Anoka, who organized the second-ever "Pig Gig" reading event at the Rum River Library. "Reading to animals is the epitome of safe and non-judgmental."
Ten years ago, an animal event at a public library would have featured a gentle, specially trained therapy dog. But for a variety of reasons, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, llamas and even chickens are gaining popularity with schools, hospitals, libraries and doctors' offices that use the services of therapy animals.
"In the past two years, we've seen more non-dog therapy animals come through than ever before," said Carol Ouhl, a dog trainer in Cottage Grove who evaluates animals on behalf of Delta Society. It's one of two national therapy animal organizations, but the only one that will register animals other than dogs and horses.
According to the Delta Society, Minnesota has two active therapy chickens, six therapy guinea pigs, seven therapy cats, four therapy rabbits and two therapy llamas. One big reason, say volunteer animal handlers, is that children's allergies are at epidemic proportions, and many organizations are now loath to have dogs (and their accompanying pet dander) in their facilities.
Also, some Muslim parents will not allow their kids to touch dogs, for religious reasons.
But the biggest reason, said Ouhl, is that people figured out they've been underestimating their non-dog animals all along. "People think you can't train a cat or a chicken to 'come,' but of course you can," she said.
In fact, Patti Anderson, the owner of Daphne and sister guinea pig Dora, has clicker-trained her animals to come on command, spin in circles and shake a paw.
Tanya Welsch, a clinical social worker in St. Paul, has a therapy chicken named Woodstock, who -- for a piece of shredded cheese -- will come or sit on command. People who have mental-health therapy sessions with Welsch will often place Woodstock on their laps and stroke her back feathers or her Tina Turner-inspired hairdo. (Woodstock is a Silkie breed, which means she has a puff of punk-rock white feathers on her head.)
Woodstock "has excellent eye contact," said Welsch. "As people talk, she just sits very still, and listens, and looks right at them." When Woodstock is really relaxed, said Welsch, she makes a throaty sound called a chicken "purr." "But it's not like a cat purr," Welsch said. "It sounds more like a little growl."
Working with non-dog therapy animals has its special challenges. Guinea pigs, for instance, live for only a few years, and even trained guinea pigs like Daphne need lots of carrot enticements and frequent rest breaks. And even expert animal trainers say it takes a special non-dog to be a good candidate for volunteer therapy work.
But Ainsley, for one, is a believer. "It was fun," she said. "I wish I could read to a guinea pig all the time."
Alyssa Ford is a Minneapolis freelance writer.