When Sue Gunnels and Baby visit the Alzheimer’s unit at an assisted living facility in Harlingen, their mission is to bring a little sunshine into the residents’ lives.
“It’s like sharing the sunshine of yourself and your therapy pet with others and receiving twice as much sunshine back,” she said.
As a registered therapy pet team for more than six years, Gunnels and her rescue dog, Baby, are among a special breed of humans and animals that help supply an overwhelming demand for their volunteer services. “You know you have contributed something of yourself and your pet to people who need to touch, feel and communicate … and feel so safe in doing so with a therapy pet,” she said.
The physical, mental, and educational impacts of human interaction with animals are well documented. According to Pet Partners, a national nonprofit organization that registers therapy pet teams and provides support and continuing education, veterans with PTSD, seniors living with Alzheimer’s, students with literacy challenges, patients in recovery, people with intellectual disabilities, and those approaching end of life are among people who can benefit from animal-assisted interventions.
“In the memory group, the residents may be sitting quietly alone in their own world of thoughts and as Baby lays her head in their lap or sits beside them, they come alive and reach down with big smiles and pet her or call her by the name of one of their past pets,” Gunnels said.
Since there is no good way to track the numbers of therapy pet teams and their visits, it is unclear how many teams are active in the Rio Grande Valley. But what is clear is that there are not enough of these volunteers to meet the demand.
“I get calls from facilities all the time asking for a team to visit but I can’t oblige them,” said Denise Silcox, the only therapy pet team evaluator licensed by Pet Partners in Deep South Texas.
Silcox uses therapy animals as part of her practice as a certified rehabilitation counselor. An assistant clinical professor in the School of Rehabilitation Counseling and Services at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Silcox teaches a course titled Animals in Health Care that looks at how animals can improve human health. She is also the sponsor of the university’s Animal Therapy Club.
“People who volunteer with their pets in the community are making a huge difference,” she said. “Animals have a way of making people feel better. Having a pet visit a nursing home or hospital gives patients a chance to think of something besides their situation and creates a sense of normalcy.”
Silcox believes more people would be willing to volunteer if they knew how to get started. While most therapy pets are dogs, Pet Partners recognizes nine species as potential therapy animals, including cats, horses and even alpacas. “The animal must be dependable, obedient and most of all love being with people,” she said.
Some basic obedience is required to pass the evaluation, but most of the exercises simulate situations and distractions that therapy pet teams might encounter on an actual visit. In one exercise, volunteers role-play as hospital patients in wheelchairs and using other medical equipment. In another, the team is crowded by individuals who may be very loud and attempt to inappropriately interact with the animal.
The evaluation is more than just a test of the animal. It evaluates the human and the animal as a team. “One thing I have seen repeatedly is a person who looks at his animal and thinks how great the animal would be as a therapy animal,” Silcox said. “They go through all the trouble and expense of getting registered, visit once or twice and then quit because they forgot that they have to be good at it, too.”
For therapy pet handlers, Silcox said they tend to find success through dedication and finding a population with which they are comfortable interacting. “For some it might be children, for others, senior citizens,” she said.
Silcox schedules two evaluation days each year, but would do them more often if the demand is there. She said people who are interested in becoming registered therapy pet teams should first complete a basic obedience course with their pet and then do the home study course at petpartners.org. They can contact Silcox at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Another resource for therapy pet information in the Valley is Inspirational Pets of South Texas, online at inspirationalpets.com.