Let’s Meet Sharon!
Sharon has completed the Animal Assisted Therapy certification at Animal Behavior Institute, Inc., and is now working at Northern Spirit Alpaca Farm in Canada.
Can you give us a bit of background? Where you live and work?
I live in the far north in Whitehorse, Yukon Canada. Check it out on a map…we’re really isolated! The population of Whitehorse is 26,000 and the entire territory only has 36,000 people spread out over an area of 500,000 km2 (almost 200,000 mi2). So…there are probably more huskies per square mile than people in the Yukon, but alpacas and llamas are even more of a head turner here than they are in the south!
I now own/operate Northern Spirit Alpaca Farm and provide individual and group therapy and education programs.
So what do we do at Northern Spirit Alpacas?
All the animals are well socialized and highly trained. Just feeding the alpacas is a thrill for most people, and we offer alpaca cart rides (I’m still training my llama to pull the cart), walks through the forest trails with the alpacas, and a range of activities such as mini-golf, badminton, horseshoes, volleyball, basketball and croquet. What makes these activities unique is that the alpacas, llama, dog and cats play along with you. Our dog and some of the alpacas are trained on the agility course as well, and visitors can either watch or participate in the agility.
The farm also offers a nature component, and during the right season we have vegetables and berries to be picked and enjoyed. Shearing season is fun too, because visitors can have a look at the raw fleece and see how it is processed. The alpacas look pretty goofy right after we shear them, and kids find them even more compelling when they are bald!
In my experience, even the most excitable kids that have trouble settling and focusing in a normal school environment are able to calm down and learn while around the animals. When we have people with physical challenges visit the farm, the cart rides are a great way to develop gross and fine motor skills, Mini golf and leading the alpacas down various trails is also a great way to work muscles while distracted by the unique animal following along.
Check out my Facebook page (Northern Spirit Alpaca Farm). Facebook has given the farm more exposure and clients than any other form of advertising and I’ve got some fun photos there too.
How did you become interested in your field?
There is very little variety in the programming offered to special needs groups in the area, and after seeing the interest that the alpacas generated wherever they went, I decided to get my ABI Animal Assisted Therapy certification, and offer some real programming to the community.
I have a BSc in zoology and I specialized in animal behaviour. I have always been interested in human-animal interactions and relationships, so the Animal Assisted Therapy program at ABI was the next logical step!
How did you benefit from your ABI experience?
I enjoyed my ABI education and the long distance relationships I developed with the other students in the program. I regret that I didn’t maintain the friendships once the program was over. I’m curious what they are all doing now! Unlike a program that involves on-campus classes, everyone in the ABI program was from different parts of North America, and they all had such different life experiences. One of the students in my program was working with otters at the time….I would never have been exposed to otter stories if I just attended a local school!
I found the instructors at ABI wonderful. They always responded to my message immediately, even though the time difference (I'm on the opposite side of the continent) probably made some of my messages come through at very odd hours.
What was your favorite course? Why?
I didn’t have a ‘favorite’ course but I did find the Animal Training course the most helpful both while I was taking it, and now that I’m putting the techniques into practice. I train animals every single day, and I can’t imagine an AAT program that doesn’t use these skills extensively.
How did you complete your fieldwork requirement?
My initial vision while I was completing my AAT certificate at ABI is not exactly the direction that my AAT program has taken. I completed my fieldwork with a local equine animal assisted therapy stable, and the programming at the stable mostly involves one-on-one support for physically disabled children and adults. I assumed this would be my focus as well, but using camelids instead of horses. It turns out that the majority of the clients that visit the farm are from behavioral special needs classes from local schools and other community groups. Most of the farm visitors are children, and I do very few individual sessions.
There is also a strong interest in the alpacas in the community at large, and I have main stream classes coming for educational farm tours, and families that live in town visiting with groups of children so they can experience a couple hours on the farm.
Would you recommend ABI to peers, colleagues, or friends?
Definitely! In fact I have already recommended the program to a social worker buddy of mine. Because we live in such an isolated location, without programs like those found at ABI, it would be logistically impossible for most people here to further their education in animal related fields.
Any final thoughts?
Feel free to reference my Facebook page in case anyone wants to check out the activities and animals at the farm. During the summer I'll be posting fun photos frequently!