Pawsitive Healing

Four-legged friends help those with special needs

Article by Michelle Talsma Everson

Photography by Provided by Pawsitive Friendships

Originally published in Ahwatukee City Lifestyle

When Tosha Tharp’s son was diagnosed with autism as a preschooler, she was shocked and overwhelmed. “Instantly, I found myself with a million questions,” she recalls.

“I was with him as he started occupational therapy and I watched and took notes,” she continues. “Occupational therapy went from three times a week, to twice, to once, to in school only. To make sure he continued to make progress, I converted our playroom into an occupational therapy gym.”

Once she was home though, her son had a hard time participating and making progress because the exercises were tough, and he had trouble communicating. Then, inspired, she put her family’s French bulldog Zoe in a therapy swing with him—and it worked like magic. From then on, Zoe was involved in every therapy activity her son did.

“Rather than focusing on what he couldn’t do, he was focusing, instead, on Zoe,” Tharp explains. “This prompted me to train Zoe as a therapy dog, ultimately culminating in us becoming a registered pet therapy team.”

Fast forward a few years, and in 2015, Tharp created Pawsitive Friendships, a Valley-based nonprofit organization that utilizes trained animal and handler teams to help those with special needs achieve specific therapy goals.

“Because animals are accepting and nonjudgmental, they make it easier for people to feel more relaxed and more comfortable during their personal treatment sessions,” she says.

With Zoe and a variety of animals by her and her volunteers’ sides—including dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, birds and horses, among others—the organization has helped more than 1,350 individuals with special needs through animal-assisted therapy. They help those in educational and clinical settings, including schools, early childhood programs, and adult day programs.

“Sometimes animal-assisted therapy is a hard sell; it’s not the norm. But, once you see it in action, it is amazing,” Thorp says. “Those our volunteers and therapy animals help often make so much progress and you can see what an astounding impact the animals are making.”

Pawsitive Friendships’ volunteer base currently numbers over 135 people from across the Valley, including Ahwatukee.

“We have a lot of Ahwatukee-based volunteers,” she says. “They are perfectly located right in the middle of the places we serve, and they often help not only in Ahwatukee but anywhere in the Valley.”

Now 15, Tharp’s son benefits from the occupational therapy he received in his youth and is thriving at home with Zoe, their fellow French bulldog Jacques, and their family’s pig Penelope. She says that, this fall, Pawsitive Friendships will expand into even more schools, with the goal of having therapy teams in Tucson eventually as well.

“We are always in need of volunteers – with trained animals or without – and donations of course,” Tharp says. “We believe that working together with therapists, aides, and teachers in schools and clinics, our animals can encourage the individuals to achieve their therapy goals. We are grateful to the Ahwatukee community, including our volunteers, who help make this happen.”

“Those our volunteers and therapy animals help often make so much progress and you can see what an astounding impact the animals are making.” - Tosha Tharp

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