Pet therapy helps VA patients


Staff Writer

IRON MOUNTAIN – Residents at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center’s Community Living Center can feel a little more at home, thanks to the facility’s successful pet therapy program.

There are currently 10 volunteers who bring their dogs, and one cat, to the facility to visit with residents.

“So many vets miss their animals from home,” said Janet Bauer-Green, VA recreation therapist. “These animals may not be their own, but it helps to fill the void.”

Depending on the residents’ preferences, the animals may perform obedience or agility demonstrations, go outside with the residents during the summer months, or simply sit in the residents’ laps.

According to Bauer-Green, the animals produce a calming effect.

“It can often divert residents from their pain,” she said. “They’re so focused on the animal that they end up feeling better.”

Volunteer Jill Alleva said that she has seen animals work wonders.

“I have seen through the years many stroke patients, who have not yet spoken, all of the sudden start trying to talk to our pets,” she said. “Pets are very non-judgmental about appearances and how we sound, so many times it’s just what the resident needs to get them started on the road to recovery.”

Residents are not the only ones who reap benefits from the program. Volunteers also find it to be a rewarding experience.

Shelly Gunville has been a pet therapy volunteer with her terrier mix Kylie for about one year.

Not long ago, Kylie was in danger of being euthanized for being “unadoptable.” She spent months in an animal shelter before Piper’s Rescue Ranch in Wallace took her in. That’s where Gunville found her and adopted her.

“It amazes me that she wasn’t adopted, especially seeing how far she’s come,” said Gunville. “We always feel good after we leave here.”

Although therapy dogs do not need to go through any formal training, they and their owners have to pass several evaluations.

Alleva, who is also a dog trainer, administers the initial evaluation.

“I am looking for an animal who is friendly, well-mannered, well-groomed, well-socialized, and healthy,” she explained.

Bauer-Green then does multiple on-site evaluations to make sure that the animal responds well within the Community Living Center environment, and that the owner has a positive attitude.

“The dogs and their owners really are a team,” said Bauer-Green.

The program has come a long way since it started about 16 years ago.

Alleva with her dog Carley and Bud Irving with his dog Chubbers were the very first volunteers.

“It was such a heartwarming experience to see our pets making a difference in their (residents) lives, which in turn, enriched our lives,” said Alleva. “I was hooked.”

Nikki Younk’s e-mail address is