Once Gabbie Rothchild discovered the “abnormally chill” demeanor of her standard poodle, Charlie Brown, she said she decided to look for opportunities to train him as a therapy dog to bring comfort and smiles to the community.
An online search led Rothchild, a Carmel resident, to Paws & Think, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that focuses on supporting humans and canines. Since the fall of 2021, Rothchild and Charlie Brown have frequently worked with students at schools, therapy centers and libraries to help them improve their literacy skills through the Paws to Read program.
“It’s amazing seeing them smile,” said Rothchild, a special education teacher at Indiana Math & Science Academy North. “At my school, we work with low-income (students and those with) very hard lives. One of the kids says, ‘I look forward to seeing him every Friday.’ It just makes me want to cry. It’s just amazing to see what dogs can do.”
During the program, children read to a therapy dog, providing a nonjudgmental setting to practice literacy. Suzette Vetrini has brought her two children to Paws to Read at the Carmel Clay Public Library multiple times. She said it’s been beneficial for her 9-year-old daughter, who was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, and her 12-year-old son, who sometimes uses the opportunity to practice reading in French.
“I love the fact that they insert animals that help children and give them that self-confidence to really love reading,” said Vetrini, a Carmel resident.
Paws & Think’s other therapy programs are Paws to Heal, which includes visits with patients, families and staff in hospitals and other health care facilities, and Paws to Comfort, which provides specially trained teams that respond during a crisis in the community to assist with grieving and healing.
The organization’s other main initiative is its Youth-Canine Program, which pairs at-risk youth with shelter dogs. The program aims to help the participants learn responsibility, job readiness, anger management, leadership and other skills as they use positive reinforcement to train the dogs in basic obedience skills that increase the canines’ likelihood of adoption.
All of Paws & Think’s initiatives take place in Central Indiana and are dependent on volunteers and donations. The organization has more than 150 teams of volunteers and dogs participating in its therapy programs and is seeking more. It also has several opportunities to serve for those who don’t own a therapy dog.
“Our hospital visits require an escort, a volunteer that doesn’t have a dog. They’re helping with patient management, making sure we’re getting the patient’s information and making sure we’re not entering rooms that we shouldn’t,” said Ashleigh Coster, Paws & Think executive director. “Our youth canine program is basically all volunteers without dogs because we’re working with shelter dogs.”
Rothchild said she continues to volunteer with Paws & Think because of the impact it has had on countless people and pups, including her own Charlie Brown.
“It’s not necessarily me who’s doing the job, it’s the dog,” she said. “(I’ve enjoyed) seeing my dog grow, too, not being as shy and going up to people and giving kisses.”
Learn more about Paws & Think and ways to be involved at pawsandthink.org.
A new leader
When Ashleigh Coster heard that Paws & Think was searching for an executive director, she felt the role would be a perfect fit. She had enjoyed working at an animal hospital throughout high school and as a dog sitter beyond that, and after moving to Indiana she spent 16 years working to improve the lives of people through the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, a nonprofit.
The role at Paws & Think offered a chance to work with both.
“When this position came open, it just combined everything I love about working with people but also working with animals,” said Coster, who has been in her new role since December 2022. “It’s been really cool to merge the two and see how our dogs are helping people. That’s the basis of our organization.”
Coster and her wife, Kira, live in downtown Indianapolis with their 12-year-old pug, Porky, whom Coster said enjoys “short walks and long naps” and doesn’t qualify as a therapy dog.