“I’m a huge dog lover,” said Kelsey Burton, Executive Director of Paws & Think, Inc. “I have six dogs around me right now,” she said during her phone interview. Burton’s work and life exemplify what the organization is all about.
Founded in 2001 by the late Gayle Hutchens, RN, MSN, who was inspired by a similar program in California which she learned about on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Paws & Think’s mission is “improving lives through the power of the human-dog connection.”
Just like the organization, when faced with a difficult situation, Burton chooses the route of nurturing. That’s how she and her husband, Josh Stults, made the decision to adopt their sixth dog, Trinket, a Shih Tzu.
Stults had said previously, “We can never have more than five dogs, that’s just insane.”
“When I told Josh she was blind, he said, ‘I work in ophthalmology. We have to take her,’” Burton said. “Our house is set up with ramps and guards, like baby gates, among other things. We have set it up so the dogs don’t fall.”
Burton has another dog, Pipsqueak, a Yorkshire Terrier, who also has special needs. Not only does Burton care for Pipsqueak, but she has trained her so that they work as a therapy team helping others.
“She’s a 1.8-pound dog,” Burton said. “She has spina bifida and was given two and a half years to live. She’s ten now. It’s pretty amazing what she has done. Honestly, I think the best blessing of my life is seeing what she and all of our therapy dogs do to help people.”
The little dog has become a star in her own right, which suits Burton just fine. Not long ago, Pipsqueak was named grand marshal of an annual walk to raise funds and awareness, sponsored by Spina Bifida Indiana.
“I’m just there to make sure she’s okay. I’m just her chauffeur,” Burton said with a laugh, regarding her celebrity dog. “It meant a lot to the kids to meet a dog who has the same disease they do.”
Burton is doing what the volunteers she coordinates do, which is bring their personal dogs to help others. About 125 people are currently in that role. Many wear multiple hats as they cover the organization’s two broad categories of services, which include youth-canine programs and pet therapy.
“We call them a therapy team. It’s the handler and their dog . . . They are trained when they join us and re-evaluated every two years,” she said.
Paws & Think serves individuals and institutions in Marion County as well as the surrounding counties. To perform their work, the dogs are trained thoroughly and precisely. Volunteers put their dogs through required schooling.
The dogs must be comfortable around loud noises and in group settings, and they can’t be afraid of wheelchairs, for example. They must love people and get along with all personality types.
Through a variety of collaborations, the dogs go into schools and hospitals, as well as going into other settings to meet the needs of people in crisis. Among some of their partners are Ascension St. Vincent, the Indianapolis Public Library, the Indianapolis Public School System, and Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital.
After the shooting on July 17 at the Greenwood Park Mall, Paws & Think went into action. Therapy teams visited the mall on multiple days in succession, meeting with shoppers who had been there, and with store employees and store owners, in addition to first responders.
“So many of the first responders’ faces lit up,” Burton said of the experience.
She also emphasized, “We only go when we’re invited.”
Those needing nurtured are sometimes in dire situations, and Burton creatively meets their needs. When someone in the community was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer, Burton set up a challenge on their birthday, asking volunteers to do their service in the person’s name.
“You can always do something. I’m not good at doing nothing,” Burton said.
When asked the number of hours she works, Burton demurred.
“It’s my job but it’s also my passion. I pretty much give all of myself to it,” she said.
If you’d like to help, the organization needs more therapy teams, especially in certain locations, since it’s too difficult for dogs to travel long distances to serve. There are numerous other needs volunteers can help with — even if you don’t have a dog.
For more information, visit www.pawsandthink.org or call 317-520-2729.
Cathy Shouse is a journalist and romance author. She’s received a 2022 grant and scholarship from the Indiana Arts Commission and the Woman’s Press Club of Indiana, respectively. Follow Cathy’s adventures at www.cathyshouse.com
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