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Pet Partners

For National Therapy Animal Day, one Veteran shares her experiences as a therapy animal handler

By Dr. Jamie D. Davis, health systems specialist for the VHA National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships (HAP)

Army Veteran Cheryl Bann began visiting the Minneapolis VA Medical Center (VAMC) with her therapy dog partner, Wilson, in 2013. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Bann and Wilson visited Veterans twice a month as a Pet Partners volunteer team. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) partnered with Pet Partners in 2019 to share benefits of the human-animal bond to improve Veterans’ quality of life and social engagement by increasing access to animal-assisted interventions, including animal-assisted therapy, throughout the VA health care system.

Pet Partners recognizes April 30 as National Therapy Animal Day, to acknowledge therapy animals and their human companions, like Ms. Bann. She spoke about her experiences as part of a therapy animal team and explained how other Veterans—or anyone—can get involved.

There are differences between therapy animals and service dogs. A service animal refers to a dog that is individually trained to do work and perform specific tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Therapy animals are used, usually in a clinical setting, to improve quality of life and improve physical, developmental, social, cognitive and/or emotional health functioning. These assistance animals are not limited to canines and can include animals other than dogs.

Other Pet Partners volunteers, including Army Veteran Walt Davis and John LaRoe, also shared their stories of visiting VAMCs with their dogs. These volunteers said that the experience is meaningful for them, their animals, and the Veterans they visit. Ms. Bann agreed.

“I joke that Wilson’s the show and I’m the driver and calendar keeper,” Ms. Bann said about their visits to the VAMC. Ms. Bann wrote a Pet Partners blog about her experiences earlier this year. Said she and Wilson visited Veterans in the polytrauma unit where people are rehabilitating from various injuries.

“Even our presence in the room seems to lower [people’s] anxiety,” she said. Wilson will walk around the room, allowing patients to pet him, or will simply rest his head on someone’s arm.

“All of the sudden [Veterans] get comfortable. This isn’t really a ‘hospital thing,’ it’s just a bunch of guys getting together,” Ms. Bann continued. Some patients who experience speech disabilities try to talk when Wilson is around.

“It’s been really cool to see how just the presence of my animal can open up that communication,” she said. Ms. Bann said it’s a detailed process to register an animal as a therapy animal, and Wilson went through a series of trainings and obedience classes, including the Canine Good Citizen test. It’s important, she said, that anyone interested in registering their dog as a therapy animal consider whether their animal is right for the job.

“When you have a therapy dog, one of the things you want to look for is what kinds of visits would be enjoyable for your animal. You don’t want to put them in a situation where they just don’t like it,” she said. “You are your animal’s best advocate.”

The entire process is worth it, Ms. Bann explained. She always wanted to “give back” to the VA and encourages other Veterans to do the same.

“For me, it’s almost a calling or mission,” she said.

For more information about becoming a therapy animal team, visit: petpartners.org/volunteer/

The Pet Partners partnership is supported by the VHA National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships (HAP, formerly the Office of Community Engagement). For more information on HAP’s work, visit va.gov/healthpartnerships.

External Link Disclaimer: This page contains links that will take you outside of the Department of Veterans Affairs website. VA does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of the linked websites.

Posted April 29, 2021