Home Zone 6 The healing power of pets

The healing power of pets

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When Mary Kay Stewart and her Hungarian Vizsla, Dooley, make a visit for the nonprofit group Therapy Animals of San Antonio, the dog is the one providing the remedy for the ailing.

Their calls can take them to hospital pediatric wings, nursing home memory-care units or a ward for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I don’t do anything but sit and listen,” Stewart said. “It’s all about the dog.”


Susan Yerkes recently participated in a Kitty Yoga session organized by San Antonio Pets Alive! Another example of the emotional contribution pets make to our lives.


When Mary Kay Stewart and her Hungarian Vizsla, Dooley, make a visit for the nonprofit group Therapy Animals of San Antonio, the dog is the one providing the remedy for the ailing.

Their calls can take them to hospital pediatric wings, nursing home memory-care units or a ward for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I don’t do anything but sit and listen,” Stewart said. “It’s all about the dog.”

From the time mankind’s ancestors first tamed wild beasts, humans have always enjoyed special relationships with animals. Today, there’s mounting evidence such interactions can have psychological and even physical benefits, not just for fond pet owners, but for people with a wide range of problems, whether it’s relieving stress, anxiety or even depression in some cases.

According to a recent Psychology Today report, animal-assisted therapy studies “found positive outcomes and overall improved emotional well-being in those with autism, medical conditions or behavioral issues. … Advocates of animal-assisted therapy say that developing a bond with an animal can help people develop a better sense of self-worth and trust, stabilize their emotions and improve their communication, self-regulation and socialization skills.”

Dooley is a certified therapy dog. Unlike trained service dogs or emotional-support animals, exclusive to one person, he’s undergone classes and testing to ensure friendliness, stability and openness to a wide range of folks. His handler, Stewart, trained with him and they always team up together.

In Air Force dorms, Dooley works as a stress reliever for recruits. In San Antonio Military Medical Center burn units, patients undergoing painful rehabilitation brush him to stretch new skin on impaired hands and arms, thus making movement more tolerable. In a Fort Sam Houston PTSD group, he does tricks and plays with the vets, or comforts them.

Stewart loves the experience.

Vicky Gurinsky feels the same way. The past president and current event coordinator and treasurer of Delta Pet Partners of San Antonio is an evaluator for the organization.

“Our goal is to bring humans and animals together for healing,” Gurinsky said.

And dogs aren’t the only animals to offer a comforting presence. Three llamas, three miniature horses, a cat, a rabbit and a pig named Forrest are among Delta’s local menagerie.

Twice before exam season, Forrest has soothed students at Texas A&M University at San Antonio.

“The students are crazy about him,” Gurinsky said.

The Delta teams also visit warrior- and family-support groups at SAMMC, civilian hospitals, the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, retirement centers, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities; take part in PAWsitive Reading programs in some elementary schools; and work as San Antonio International Airport Ambassadors.

Delta conducts sessions for human-animal partners four times yearly, with post-analyses from each class. When handlers think companions are ready, there’s a one-hour appraisal to certify the team before registering with the national organization, and retesting biennially.

Delta training and evaluation is held at Morningside Ministries, where managers are keenly aware of the therapy’s power.

Janie Guevara, resident services director for Morningside Ministries at the Manor,  said folks are delighted by the animals’ visits.

“You should see the way our residents’ faces light up when these animals come in. It brings them such comfort and joy. It’s hard to describe,” said Guevara, who has worked at Morningside for 20 years.

The animals have been so helpful that Guevara is exploring a growing trend among nursing homes – using lifelike, furry, robotic replicas.

Morningside has an artificial dog and cat, Guevara said, and goes on rounds with them.

“It’s just like a real dog or cat. They really delight people,” she said.

Also, Pipe Creek-based Happy Tails Entertainment, run by two ex-SeaWorld San Antonio trainers, stops by Morningside with visitors.

Whether it’s a tame porcupine, wallaby, kinkajou, alpaca or tortoise, they’re always a hit.

“You’d be surprised – some ladies even like the python. They want to touch it, and one lady wanted to wrap it around her neck,” Guevara said. “I think it brings back times people had with their own pets.”

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