Longtime HABIC volunteer trains second dog to make a difference

Through a new partnership with a two-year-old Golden Retriever, HABIC volunteer Michael Beck-Gifford continues to fuel a passion for working in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) settings and making a difference in the lives of children and families in Fort Collins.

human-animal bond in colorado volunteer with golden retriever
Photo: Silver Paw Studio

“HABIC’s program teaches people that animals can be more than just pets,” said Michael Beck-Gifford, a longtime volunteer who has been part of HABIC since 2010. The service work focused on the benefits of the human-animal bond and perfectly complimented his career in healthcare.

“They are a great source of comfort in times of stress and can be trained to help with therapy for many mental health issues,” said Beck-Gifford. Some studies have found that petting and making eye contact with a dog can lead to increases in oxytocin, a chemical in the brain involved in empathy, trust, and bonding.

golden retriever laying down in a bed of flowersBeck-Gifford’s first HABIC dog was a Golden Retriever named Leo. The pair worked together as a volunteer team for several years.

“Leo was our third Golden Retriever,” said Beck-Gifford. “I completed HABIC training and spent a year visiting with patients and staff at Columbine Center Rehab. Toward the end of that time, we took classes toward AAT certification.”

AAT facilitates specific treatment goals for clients

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) refers to a goal-directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is delivered and/or directed by health or human service providers working within the scope of their profession, such as a school social worker.

Human-animal teams work closely with specialized health and human services professionals. Because of its ongoing role in a client’s treatment regimen and the need for documentation and evaluation, AAT requires additional training of human-animal teams.

golden retriever leo being brushed by a middle school studentBeck-Gifford and Leo volunteered at Harris Bilingual Immersion School in Fort Collins for two and a half years. “I asked to start at Harris Bilingual [because] almost half the kids were my patients at the children’s clinic.”

“One child in particular stood out,” said Beck-Gifford. “As he worked with Leo, he would get frustrated easily. The school social worker and I discussed ADHD assessment with his mother [and] that helped tremendously both for his school work and social interactions. The rest of his time with Leo was very rewarding for all of us.”

The pair went on to work at Johnson Elementary and at Lincoln Middle School for an additional 5 years. In 2018, Beck-Gifford and Leo were awarded advanced certification honors from HABIC.

Grace already loves therapy work

When Leo passed away near the end of 2019, Beck-Gifford and his wife Hillary started looking for their fourth Golden Retriever right away.

“We met with three different breeders, and were lucky enough to get Grace, who was born on my father’s birthday,” said Beck-Gifford. “The breeder helped us choose a dog that would make a good therapy dog.”

“I knew I wanted to continue doing AAT because it had such a huge impact on the children we worked with, as well as their families and other children at the schools, just because Leo was there,” Beck-Gifford said.

golden retriever sitting in front of a bed of pink roses
Photo: Silver Paw Studio

Before training with HABIC, Beck-Gifford was able to bring Grace to work occasionally, where she proved she would indeed make a good therapy dog.

“When I retired, she was not allowed to, because she had become the [unofficial] office therapy dog,” said Beck-Gifford. “She still goes in once a week to spread joy.”

The new pair are looking forward to a new beginning as a HABIC volunteer team in a local school this fall.

Looking back, Beck-Gifford is happy he chose to work with HABIC and become a therapy animal volunteer. “HABIC was established and well-respected. The connection with the Social Work department at Colorado State University was a real positive.”

About Human-Animal Bond in Colorado

Founded in 1993, Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) is a center in the School of Social Work, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences. HABIC’s mission is to improve the quality of life for people of all ages through the therapeutic benefits of companion animals, with particular focus in the areas of community outreach, teaching, and research.

HABIC volunteer teams make a difference in Colorado communities by providing animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapies. Please visit us at HABIC.org to learn more about volunteering with your animal.

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