Pet project

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Talon, a golden Labrador retriever, visits with Oakwood Heritage Hospital patient Cecilia Szpak of Lincoln Park. The dog, along with owner Lisa Jacques of Taylor, regularly visits patients at the Taylor hospital.

Visits by furry friends and their owners help with humans’ healing

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR – Move over, Lassie.

A new generation of animals has become everyday heroes, and without having to rescue anyone from a well.

Dog, cat and rabbit Pet-A-Pet volunteers, along with their human sidekicks, help heal patients’ spirits simply by visiting them in medical, rehabilitation and assisted living facilities. The animals, in turn, get positive strokes — and maybe a gentle scratch behind their ears.

The Pet-A-Pet volunteer program was launched in 1986, when Ruth Curry and a small band of volunteers began visiting local nursing homes with their pets. The group since has spread to the tri-county metropolitan Detroit area.

In addition to nursing homes, volunteers visit rehabilitation centers, as well as abuse victims and developmentally disabled children and adults. Experts agree that pets play an important part in people’s lives from childhood through adulthood. Seniors, however, often find themselves in a living environment not compatible with full-time pets.

Volunteer Mary Chamberlin became active with Pet-A-Pet more than five years ago when she would take a golden Labrador retriever to Oakwood Common Retirement Community in Dearborn. She’s found that visiting people in nursing homes and hospitals with one of her pets can relieve the tension of a stressful day. On Aug. 24 she and her adult son, Scott Chamberlin, were visiting Oakwood Heritage Hospital’s Rehabilitation Center in Taylor with Sebastian, their chocolate Lab.

“You can have a terrible day and come here and realize, ‘You know what?’ That day wasn’t quite so bad as you thought it was,” she said.

Research in animal-facilitated therapy has shown that people experience many positive benefits from pet interaction, including lower blood pressure, mood enhancement and sensory and emotional stimulation.

Chamberlin experienced this firsthand when a woman who hadn’t spoken in six months starting talking during a Pet-A-Pet visit.

“We walked in with our golden (Labrador retriever) and the woman said, ‘Oh, would you like to have tea?’” she said. “I thought her daughter was going to keel right over there on the floor because her mother had not spoken in six months. She was completely noncommunicative. So that kind of thing really makes you come back the next time.”

Lisa Jacques of Taylor, who visits patients with her golden Lab, Talon, enjoys spending time with her dog and is pleased that she can make other people happy at the same time.

“I see how (the visit) just really helps the people,” Jacques said. “You know they have pets at home … so I feel that if I can bring some happiness to them, maybe (I can) make them feel a little better that day. I really enjoy doing it.”

Even when her paying work demands more time, she still makes time for her Pet-A-Pet visits.

“No matter how many hours a day I work, I will continue to do this,” Jacques said. “It’s just great. I love it.”

Jacques said volunteers bring mostly dogs, but also visit with cats and domesticated rabbits.

Ebony Conner, Oakwood Heritage’s volunteer services representative, said patients look forward to the visits and react positively.

“The patients absolutely love our pet therapy program because they love the visits from the actual volunteers and they’re pet owners,” Conner said. “They get to pet the animals, and it brings some relaxation and puts them at ease. It cheers everyone up; they absolutely love the program.”

Patient Kathleen Greca of Huron Township enjoyed her visit with the canine and human Pet-A-Pet volunteers Aug. 24 in Oakwood Heritage’s rehabilitation unit. The former pet owner recalled how her mother had benefited from therapeutic pet interactions.

“I had my mother in another facility, and they have a regular big, black Lab there who kind of goes and sees everybody,” Greca said. “We really enjoy it, so it’s a good service (and) it really brightens everybody’s day.”

Chamberlin said participating pets are “characters,” and that patients enjoy each animal’s personality when the pets visit.

Those visits are in danger of become less frequent, however. She is worried about the drop in the number of volunteers who make the program possible.

“We are struggling right now,” Chamberlin said. “We had at one point almost 300 volunteers; we’re down to barely 200. We have a waiting list of nine facilities that still need people to (volunteer). We don’t have enough people to fill the requests.”

She said the group gets one or two inquiries a week from facilities that would like Pet-A-Pet volunteers to visit.

“There just aren’t enough people willing to give an hour or two a month,” Chamberlin said. “I know that people are busy; everybody’s busy. But this is so rewarding.”

Chamberlin said to volunteer with Pet-A-Pet, dogs’ rabies shots must be up-to-date, which she says already is mandated by the state.

“We ask that the dogs be friendly with other animals, as well as people,” she said. “We do have paperwork that has to be signed by the vet saying that the dog is healthy enough to do this type of work.”

Pet-a-Pet welcomes friendly and caring pets and owners to join their group and volunteer for as little as an hour or two a month. Most volunteers visit specific health care facilities close to their homes. Visits usually last an hour.

For locations, times and pet personality requirements call Laura Dudgeon at (313) 561-0101, or go to