Shannon Dominguez works at least 70 hours per week at Upcountry Maui’s Haku Baldwin Center.She directs a popular community program called Animal-Assisted Therapy. Several times per week, she loads up her truck with a menagerie of well-trained animals–including dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, ducks & chickens–and visits people who are elderly, infirmed or disabled. Her therapy animals bring comfort to about 400 people per month on Maui.
I tagged along with Dominguez and her crew, and in about three hours we visited nearly 65 elderly and disabled people. Here’s how a typical animal-assisted therapy visit works. Residents of a skilled nursing facility gather in the activities’ room. Some have just come from physical therapy, dialysis or a visit with their doctor; others have gotten out of bed for the first time that day. Most sit in wheelchairs. I walked with a certified therapy dog around to each resident and asked if he or she would like to meet a nice dog. Some people don’t like dogs, and we moved on. But many love animals and did their best to pet the dog with knotted hands. Faces light up, and for a few moments, pain melts away. Some residents remained focused on the animal for the entire visit, while others after a minute or two started chatting with me. One elderly woman patted the dogs head and then showed me the newspaper she was holding. She was reading her eldest son’s obituary.
There is more demand on Maui for animal-assisted therapy than she can meet, explained Dominguez. For example, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) might benefit from animal-assisted therapy, but in order to serve them, Dominguez would have to double the size of her operation. It’s a problem that many small non-profit organizations face: a larger operation would mean a much greater administrative paperwork burden and less time doing the work. That’s not likely to happen any time soon, given Dominguez’s dedication to the programs she runs matched by existing funding for the Haku Baldwin Center and the AAT program comes from a private endowment. But Dominguez added that private donations are always welcome.