Laura Haight (above) gives Buster a dog cookie before the two head out for a walk during the Hand-to-Paw Buddy Program.

Hand-to-Paw helps ease fears and build bonds

Joint program joins clients from Campbell River's Association for Community Living with SPCA dogs

Laura Haight is in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop her or her new friend Buster from getting to know each another – they even manage to get out in the rain for a short walk.

As Haight bends over to pet her canine pal’s shiny tan coat, Buster patiently sits, lapping up the attention.

“Good boy,” Haight murmurs as she lovingly strokes the pit bull terrier who’s an SPCA shelter dog. “You’re such a handsome boy.”

Haight, 36, is a special needs client at the Campbell River and District Association for Community Living. She has been coming to the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) every Friday for the past three weeks to see Buster, the star of the two organizations’ joint  Hand-to-Paw Buddy Program.

Hand-to-Paw is an educational and enrichment program which begins with a meet-and-greet for client and Buster.

This leads to other sessions which include petting and brushing the dog, teaching basic commands, and dog walking. Some of the association’s clients have even drawn portraits of Buster.

“Each client has about four sessions with the dog, so it is also relationship-building, and we have seen much evidence of positive interaction and bonding between the client and the shelter dog,” says Sheila Keats, an SPCAs volunteer dog walker who is also the Hand-to-Paw program facilitator.

For Haight, the sessions have been about easing her fears and forming a relationship.

“I really love Buster,” Haight says during her last session with Buster. “I was a little bit scared and apprehensive about him, but from the first day he calmed me down. I just love him. I would love to take him home.”

Buster, the mild-mannered eight-year-old pit bull, is lovingly referred to by Keats, Haight and her support worker Alexandra Bentley as “the myth buster” of his breed which carries a fighting reputation.

Bentley says Buster has been so calm with all four women who have attended sessions.

“They become so emotionally attached,” she says. “Each one of the ladies that’s come, all have different personalities, and everyone has responded well to Buster. The women get together and they all talk about Buster.

“One individual is quite apprehensive about dogs and now they want to come and give this a try because of all the Buster talk.”

And Buster has taken to his visitors.

He matches the strides of Haight and her wheelchair, as she holds his leash during a morning walk.

When Haight stops suddenly, Buster puts his front paws on Haight’s lap and stands on his hind legs, checking to make sure everything is okay.

Haight joyfully gives Buster a pat on the head and the two resume their walk.

“I would love to do this all again,” Haight says as they near the SPCA shelter and the end of the session – Haight’s last until the fall.

The special bond Buster and Haight have formed in a short amount of time is evident as Haight tries to say goodbye.

“I just want to take you home. You’ve warmed my heart, Buster,” Haight says as she strokes Buster and a tear rolls down her cheek.

Keats consoles Haight with a framed photograph of her and Buster, as a souvenir of her participation in the program.

Haight has come a long way since the beginning, when she was afraid and not too sure of Buster.

“I was very uptight the first time but Buster was very submissive,” she says. “He was so sweet and he’s just adorable. I’ve learned a lot.”

Keats says the program, since it began in April, has been a positive experience for everyone involved.

“It’s been a growing experience for the SPCA, for the dog, for Laura,” she says. “It’s emotionally really touched these ladies that have been coming.”

The program, which runs for 45 minutes every Friday, continues until mid-October. The program will be evaluated over the winter to see if changes can be made in preparation for the 2013 season.

Bentley says she would love to see the popular program return, “Everybody’s asking ‘can we do this again next year?’ ”

All about Buster

The eight-year-old pit bull terrier cross has been at the SPCA for about four months.

Buster has adjusted well to the shelter and is featured in the Hand-to-Paw Buddy program because of his gentle disposition.

According to the SPCA, Buster has a wonderful nature, loves people and will make a wonderful companion to the right people in the right home.

If you think Buster may be a good match for your home, call the SPCA at (250) 286-6131.