When I was a little girl, I spent time in a Tyler, Texas, hospital receiving treatment for complications from diabetes and a stomach bug. Hooked to an IV, I was sick, scared and sad. And then came a knock on the door.

A woman peeked in and asked if we wanted to see a visiting dog. Being an animal lover, I jumped at the opportunity. In walked a medium-sized fluffy white dog on a leash. I don’t remember his name, but I will never forget his kind eyes. He was lifted onto my bed and I scratched behind his ears and under his neck and gave him a good belly rub.

In that moment I was no longer a sick kid tired of being in the hospital hooked up to beeping machines. I was, at least for a moment, being a friend to a kind dog and thinking about something other than the walls of the hospital room.

This was my introduction to the magic of Therapet.

Therapet is an East Texas based nonprofit organization that utilizes trained animals to promote health, hope and healing.

“Therapet motivates, comforts and inspires people to go a little further, try a little longer, and find a little more strength,” executive director of Therapet, Carianne Sikes said.

HELPING OTHERS

Research shows that sick or injured people benefit from interacting with animals.

“There have been studies linking interaction with animals to lower blood pressure; lower heart rate; lower level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine; less reliance on pain medication; and higher levels of helpful hormones like serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin,” Sikes said. “Patients report having less fear and anxiety is they interact with animals.”

Therapets do not judge, they don’t stare and gawk and they don’t ask endless questions about how the patient is doing or what the prognosis is. They are there as a companion that patients can talk to or pet.

“We receive a number of great emails and Facebook posts from former patients saying they were feeling discouraged or depressed and were ready to give up until they received a visit from Therapet,” Sikes said. “Many say their mood changed, but often we hear that their recovery turned around – they started getting better after the visit from Therapet.”

At Trinity Mother Frances Rehabilitation Hospital/HealthSouth in Tyler, Therapet animals are used as part of therapy. By petting behind a dog’s ear, or brushing a cat’s back, patients strengthen their muscles and tendons.

“Patients recovering from joint replacements or illnesses like strokes often stand longer and walk farther and faster with an animal,” Sikes said. “They relax more during their exercises and seem to be more likely to lose track of time and exercise longer.”

Therapets also go into schools to help calm students before a big exam and to let young children read to them as a way to improve their reading skills.

“We assist children with reading skills at the East Texas Crisis Center and also assist with their Positive Parenting program,” Sikes said. “Our human/animal teams can be a catalyst when a child is stuck in therapy at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Smith County.”

All the services are funded by donations.

“We do not accept any payment for our services so our donors and funders make it all possible,” she said. “We rely on donations to keep the lights on and to expand and grow. We are so fortunate to be in such a philanthropic community! We have had so much support over our 22 years and we are so grateful to the individuals, businesses, and family foundations that have enabled us to continue to advance and to spread health, hope and healing to more people.”

VOLUNTEERS

Therapet is a 100 percent volunteer organization. Most of its approximately 130 human volunteers have animals in the program.

Wendy Clarke has volunteered for two years. She and her boxer, Rocky, participate in hospital visits and community events. She works full time and volunteers four to six times a month.

“That is what I love about therapet.” Clarke said. “You can do it as often or as little as you want or need … There are many different times available to volunteer. I pick what I can do and the time to do it.”

Sikes says many volunteers “feel it is a calling. All of them talk about how amazing it is to see the reactions of the people we serve. It’s like a light goes on inside them and everyone can feel its warmth.”

Clarke said she has seen Therapet bring comfort to people during some of their most difficult moments in life.

“When you see a family (in a hospital) who just lost their aunt and they’re in tears …  there is a whole family in tears and the dogs are comforting and they are hugging them, it can be very much a stress reliever and can be very emotional because you see the smiles and how you help people.”

BECOMING A THERAPET

Becoming a Therapet is a three-step process.

To be considered, a dog must be at least 1 year old and current on vaccinations. As the first step, the handler/pair must complete obedience classes and pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test.

The pair must then take a Therapet Skills Class.

“The class is seven weeks long and teaches the owner and his/her dog the necessary skills to work in the variety of settings Therapet serves,” Sikes said. “It includes training on working around hospital equipment; interacting with patients using wheelchairs, walkers and crutches; interacting with people in hospital beds; remaining calm around distracting noises, smells and objects.”

The third step is Temperament Testing. Dog are evaluated on confidence, shyness, friendliness, protectiveness, the ability to distinguish between threatening and nonthreatening situations and the ability to look to the handler for leadership.

“The goal of temperament testing is to get at the fundamental nature of a dog in order to get an idea of how the dog might act and react in various situations and in response to various stimuli,” Sikes said.

Teams that complete these steps, enter an apprenticeship during which they go on at least three patient visits with a mentor – an experienced volunteer. The mentor provides guidance and determines if more visits are needed before the team is certified.

The process usually takes about a year.

“Some teams find it takes a little longer to complete obedience training due to scheduling issues,” Sykes said. Some dogs need to take the Skills Class more than once. Sometimes a dog just needs to be a little bit older. We also have some animals that seem to know what to do automatically. Every team is different.”

Currently, 90 dogs, five cats and one bird are certified as a Therapet.

Sykes said the demand for services is increasing and it needs more volunteers, animals and money to meet requests.

Teams visit patients at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Hospital, ETMC Tyler, ETMC  Jacksonville and UT Health Northeast. They visit students in Tyler, Chapel Hill and Beckville school districts and inmates at Skyview and Hodge Units of the Texas Department of Corrections and Rusk State Hospital.

“There are a lot of opportunities to volunteer with animals and a lot to volunteer to help people, but with Therapet volunteers can do both.” Sikes said. “I feel like our human and animal volunteers help make little miracles happen every day.”

THE GIFT OF AN ANIMAL

In a testimonial on Therapet’s website, a man named Clark shares his story of being visited by a Therapet while recovering in the hospital after surgery.

“About three days after my surgery, I was sitting in a chair in a lot of pain when a man with a dog by the name of Foster asked me if I wanted a visitor. When they came in and Foster laid his head in my lap, I could not stop from crying. … From that moment, my healing kicked into overdrive. Let me tell you that day made my life and I will never forget.”

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