Animal therapy provides way for pet owners to honor pets

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Are you looking for an extra-special Christmas gift for your most loyal companion?

The University of North Texas offers a chance to honor your pets this year with donations to its Center for Animal Assisted Therapy. The center, which began in 2002, trains professionals and volunteers in animal-assisted activities and therapy with schoolchildren, nursing home patients, juveniles in detention centers, those needing counseling after a crisis, and others.

For donations of any amount -- even as small as $1 -- the pet's picture and the owner's message will be posted on the center's web site at www.coe.unt.edu/CDHE/AAT. Those who donate $1,000 or more will also earn a place on the Donor Wall in Stovall Hall, where the center is housed at UNT.

"These funds train volunteers and professionals to provide services for people of all ages so the pet and the person are partners," said Cynthia Chandler, director of the Center for Animal Assisted Therapy. "It's a wonderful way to honor your pet, and there's a whole cycle of people who benefit."

UNT's center is the only one of its kind in Texas and has trained several people to use animal-assisted therapy in the area, including the Arlington, Denton, Fort Worth, Grapevine-Colleyville, Garland, Keller, Lewisville and Mesquite school districts. Others have completed the UNT center' s home study programs in India and Romania.

Chandler, a professor of counseling, development and higher education, became a nationally certified pet partner and animal-assisted therapy instructor in 1999 after she brought her red and white cocker spaniel, Rusty, to campus and noticed how quickly her students and her clients in UNT's Biofeedback Research and Training Laboratory bonded with him.

"With Rusty present, cuddling and comforting, my patients began to feel better faster, and my students showed greater interest in their courses," she says.

Chandler and Rusty completed their training through the Delta Society, learning skills needed to visit and interact with those in hospitals, nursing homes, classrooms and other facilities. A few years later, Chandler established the Center for Animal Assisted Therapy at UNT.

She started the center's pet honoring program in July by giving $50 donations to honor each of her three therapy pets: Rusty and a second dog, named Dolly, and her cat Snowflake, who is now retired from animal-assisted therapy.

Chandler says her most moving experience in counseling people via pet therapy was helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina who were staying at Reunion Arena and the Dallas Convention Center this fall.

She recalls that the evacuees looked lost and shocked, and found it difficult to speak with a counselor. But when she brought Rusty and Dolly with her on her third day visiting the shelters, the people smiled and rose from the cots to spend time with the dogs and Chandler. They talked about the pets they'd left behind in New Orleans before discussing rooftop rescues by helicopter and the devastation of the city.

Chandler says even the doctors and nurses treating the evacuees sought out the dogs for hugs, and burly National Guardsmen in uniforms and heavy black boots stopped to coo over the dogs and talk about their pets at home.

"They're teddy bears that respond," Chandler says of the dogs. "We know that teddy bears and stuffed animals can be very comforting. When you have a teddy bear that wants to lick your face, it's total acceptance and unconditional love. When we walked away, people would say, ‘Thank you so much for bringing the dogs.'"

To make a donation to the Center for Animal Assisted Therapy in your pet's name, visit www.coe.unt.edu/CDHE/AAT or call (940) 565-2910, (940) 565-2900 or (800) 868-1153.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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