Humans and Animals Creating Healing Bonds

By Lee & Zen Rennick

While all you have to do is have a fuzzy, warm dog or cat crawl up into your lap and snuggle to know that this contact makes you feel better, there is now research being done at a number of institutions around the country to put scientific analysis behind this intuitive feeling. Researchers at National Institutes of Health, the University of Missouri, and California State Polytechnic University are but a few of the groups helping to show that interaction with our pets can make us healthier.

This research is leading to the use of more animals in treatments and therapy at hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers, jails, and mental health facilities. For over 50 years, we have known that petting your dog or cat can reduce blood pressure and help heart attack patients live longer. New research shows that loving a pet has even more extensive effect on public physical and psychological health.

A number of organizations in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County are having great success employing service animals in healing and assisting humans with mental and physicals challenges – from watching over children with brittle diabetes to calming handicapped children to helping terminal patients transition. Below are three success stories where animals and humans have healed each other.

JourneyPure at the River

Addiction, be it drug and alcohol or some other form of addiction, slowly eats your life away. The road back is not easy. At Journey Pure at the River in Murfreesboro, their therapeutic riding program has healed many individuals and families experiencing the rollercoaster of recovery, but it also healed the horses that brought the program into being.

The first horse added to the team, according to Partrick Dunn, JourneyPure Vice President, was Waylon. Waylon was a former racehorse that had been “put out to pasture.” “He was under weight, had bad feet, and needed to be loved back to health,” said Dunn.

JourneyPure Voyage, their equine therapy program, aids patients in the development of a relationship with the horse they are assigned to care for, focus on something other than themselves, teamwork skills with other program members in dealing with disappointment and high level problem solving, as well as stress relief and confidence building.

As the patients at JourneyPure healed through their interactions with Waylon, Waylon also healed. He also befriended another unwanted horse named Filipe, and the two of them became the core of the herd of therapeutic riding horses.

“Over the years,” said Dunn, Waylon and Felipe helped hundreds of individuals, groups, families, and couples find their way in their recovery. They powerfully held the space and were very often a large shoulder to cry on. They role played as fathers, brothers, wives, children, victims and even persecutors. They were pushed, brushed, chased, bribed, ridden, and throughout it all they stayed non-judgmental loving partners… To think at one time these magnificent creatures were unwanted is hard to conceive.”

Then Felipe died suddenly and Waylon spiraled into depression. It was time for the humans to whom he had given so much time and love to step up to the plate and console him. And that they did. He has since taken on more of his former partner’s tasks, and has provided more opportunity for patients to learn about grief and acceptance.

Under Waylon’s steady hand, the therapy herd has grown and transitioned to act as protectors and mentors to new facilitators and teammates.

“They welcomed all to the farm,” added Dunn, “with grace, integrity, and safety to create a space for recovery and growth.”

Pet Partners Program at Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center (RCJDC)

“When utilizing [the pet therapy teams] with our delinquent children,” said Judge Donna Scott Davenport, “those youth receive unconditional love from the dogs, some maybe for the first time…[And, no] matter how tough they appear, it seems to touch a part of their… heart[s], and in the process eliminates some of that tough exterior.”

According to Captain Rebecca Baskette, all of the juveniles at RCJDC are eligible to participate in Pet Partners Programming, which began in May 2012.

There are currently two registered pet therapy teams, Maggie Sanguinetti and her Doberman, Egypt, and Melissa Smith and her German Shepard, Nitro. They educate the kids about dog safety, demonstrating ways to train a dog, and teach the importance of trust in all types of relationships.

Dog safety includes having the participants learn what to do if they encounter a pack of dogs, how to interact with an unfamiliar dog, and how to ask permission to pet a person’s dog. The youth inmates learn how to take the dogs through obstacle courses, and do tricks with the dogs.

The exercises teach the kids patience and respect. It also enables the kids to encourage each other not to give up during the training exercises when things don’t go the way they expect. Different commands result in diverse reactions. The detainees also learn the difference in positive and negative reinforcements. They learn the dogs must trust and understand their instructions to get over the hurdles during the training exercises.

Baskette explains that benefits of the Pet Partners Program at RCJDC are that it teachers responsible pet ownership, instructs them about empathy and good values, improves detainee moral and behavior, provides positive role modeling, reduces anxiety and returns some normalcy to their lives, counter balances the detention center’s “no-touch” policy, creates encouragement among peers, and shows the kids who and how to trust.

Dogs are also used with children who have been abused. “In cases regarding child abuse or neglect,” said Scott Davenport, “if the child has to testify they are able to meet the dog prior to them taking the stand.  Then when they take the stand, they can have the dog in their lap, [which helps them stay calm].”  

PAWS to Read

A year ago a very special partnership was formed. The Central Magnet School Middle School Reading Club was looking for a way to give back to the community, and wanted to do something where they read to a group of people. They ended up reading to shelter dogs at PAWS of Rutherford County instead.

“The idea is, when kids sit and read with the dogs, it helps them become more adoptable,” said Sarah Rosenberger-Svarda, co-librarian at Central and the book club advisor. “They quiet down, they calm down, and they’re more likely to come to the front of the cages when the kids read to them, but it also helps develop empathy in the kids who are making that bond.”

“When being read to,” said Lindsey Frierson, Public Relations Media Specialist for PAWS of Rutherford County, “some of the dogs try to jump and play, while others actually sit, listen, and enjoy the books that are being read to them. The purpose of reading to the dogs is to teach dogs how to control their high energy and excitement while in the kennel.

“Many times, when a dog jumps up in the kennel, it will discourage potential adopters from taking them out and getting to know them better, outside the kennel. Reading to dogs is an interactive way to do behavioral training with the dogs. We have also noticed that the dogs REALLY like when it is children that are reading to them.”

The children get attached to the dogs, and are often both sad and happy when they get adopted. But understanding that adoption is the end goal for their animal friends, the kids decided to have an adoption day at the school. They promoted it around their school community.

PAWS brought their truck with adoptable dogs. The school had also arranged for the donation of books from Ingram Content Group to be given away with adoption of each dog so the new owner could continue the training. While none of the dogs were adopted that day, the school turned over the books to PAWS to give out when a dog is adopted.
Rosenberger-Svarda is not sure what next year’s book club will choose to do as a community project, but she hopes the project continues as it was beneficial for both the students and the dogs.

In the mean time, Frierson is open to having other groups participate in the program. “CMS has been our only committed group to participate on a regular basis,” said Frierson. If anyone [else wants] … to get involved, they can call 615-898-7740 and ask for Public Relations Specialist, Lindsay Frierson, or email directly to”
For more information on the topic, there a number of articles and books available about the way in which pets and humans heal each other, including the article, Pet Therapy: How Animals and Humans Heal Each Other, found on NPR, and the book, Therapy Pets: The Animal Human Healing Partnership, by Jacqueline J. Crawford. Or you can let a pet climb into your lap and let them do their thing.