National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships
Veteran-and-dog team virtually visit fellow Veterans, spread joy wherever they go
By Dr. Tracy L. Weistreich, Nurse Executive, VHA National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships
Lou Lewis of Nashville, Tennessee, is retired from the United States Army and has a very popular dog. Petey, a 9-year-old, 80-pound greyhound works with Ms. Lewis to provide animal visitation with Veterans as part of the Pet Partners organization.
“I had a visit yesterday, and one of the individuals said, ‘I could just talk to Petey all day long,’” Ms. Lewis said.
Right now, the volunteer team visits Veterans virtually and should return to in-person visits soon. Pet Partners, which promotes the health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted interventions including animal-assisted therapy, activities, and education, established a partnership with VA in 2019. The VHA National Center for Healthcare Advancement and Partnerships (HAP, formerly the Office of Community Engagement), manages the partnership. Many Veteran Pet Partners volunteers talk about their positive experiences.
Ms. Lewis, who has five greyhounds, adopted Petey seven years ago. The people she and Petey visit provide a sense of social connection as well as a sense of levity and fun from how others respond to him. Petey helps Ms. Lewis healthy by increasing physical activity through walks and training.
“When we’re out for walks, people will point and say ‘That’s a greyhound! I think that’s the one I lost my money on at the track!’” Ms. Lewis said with a laugh.
Petey is a retired racing greyhound and Ms. Lewis adopted him via the Music City Greyhound Adoption program, which finds loving homes for retired racing greyhounds. She and Petey trained with Pet Partners to become a therapy animal team and registered through Music City Pet Partners, a volunteer therapy animal organization, to provide animal-assisted therapy.
“The handler and the therapy dog have to have a great connection,” she explained. Petey learned how to maneuver around wheelchairs and walkers and stay calm around different or loud voices like he might encounter during U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center visits.
When Ms. Lewis visits fellow Veterans, she experiences a sense of bonding and social connection to them.
“I can relate to some of the experiences these Veterans have had. I’ve served during the Vietnam era, like some of them. They know my rank, which was First Sergeant, and they’ll call me ‘Top’ or salute me,” she explained.
Once, Ms. Lewis said, a patient who had difficulty speaking had a visit from Petey.
“I went in and said, ‘This is Petey, he wants to be your friend,’ and the patient was able to say the word ‘dog,’” Ms. Lewis said. “I’ve got goosebumps right now! It just shows you the power of what animals can do for people.”
Therapy animals are used, usually in a clinical setting, to improve physical, developmental, social, cognitive and/or emotional health functioning. Visits with animals can improve people’s health and well-being through the human-animal bond.
Veterans can also experience the benefits of the human-animal bond, as well as physical activity, by participating in Pet Partners’ World’s Largest Pet Walk on September 25.
For more information about becoming a therapy animal team, visit: petpartners.org/volunteer/.
For more information on HAP’s partnerships, please visit va.gov/healthpartnerships.
Posted July 15, 2021