The University of Texas Health Center at Tyler :: Welcome Waggers Pet Therapy

Welcome Waggers Pet Therapy

Jesse Bunt is up early, getting ready for another day of work as a trained therapist at UT Health Northeast. Her teeth are brushed, her hair is combed, and she is dressed in her uniform. Then she’s off to the hospital, where she will visit patients and staff, delivering her own unique brand of healing. One of the many volunteers at UT Health Northeast, Jesse is special…she’s one of the few whose tail wags when she visits our patients.

A nine-year-old golden retriever, Jesse has been volunteering at UT Health Northeast since September, when the “Welcome Waggers” program kicked off. Jesse’s owner and handler, Amanda Bunt, is UT Health Northeast’s Special Events Coordinator and helped to establish the pet visitation program. “The dogs in the Welcome Waggers program have a lot of love to give, and who better to share that with than patients who are away from their homes, their families, and their own pets,” Amanda says, adding, “It’s also a great morale boost for our staff – several nurses know Jesse by name and ask about her when I see them during the week.” Wagger with patient

From Jack Russell Terriers to Irish Wolfhounds, from French Bulldogs to Great Danes, the dogs in the UT Health Northeast Welcome Waggers program represent a variety of breeds and personalities. But they have one thing in common – they are all certified therapy dogs. After undergoing intensive obedience training and temperament testing, Jesse was certified in December 2002 by Therapet, a nonprofit organization based in Troup that works to promote the use of animals in the healing and rehabilitation of acute and chronically ill individuals.

Shari Curran, Therapet’s executive director, notes that therapy dogs receive on average at least nine months of training. Only 20 to 30 percent of the dogs who begin the training complete it on their first try. “It’s a pretty intense and rigorous training. You have to be committed to it. When the dogs get that Therapet collar, leash, and tags, it means something,” says Shari. Founded in 1994, the Therapet program currently boasts more than 60 animals, including two cats and two horses. Volunteer opportunities include visitation at local hospitals as well as Hospice of East Texas; animal assisted therapy at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital; and a reading facilitation program at Rusk Junior High School in which children with reading difficulties read aloud to the dogs.

The Welcome Waggers’ impact at UT Health Northeast is easy to see as the dogs make their rounds. Amanda notes, “I’ve seen patients’ reactions range from laughter to uncontrollable tears. When I witness the power of that connection, it confirms what I’ve already learned from Jesse – that these animals are truly gifts of God. It’s so rewarding to see our patients and their families light up when they see and touch the dogs.”

And what about Jesse’s reward for a hard day’s work? A quick back scratch from a nurse, a pat on the head from a passing physician, and a big bear hug from a pediatric patient…that’s all the reward needed to keep her tail wagging.

The Welcome Waggers visit patients at UT Health Northeast on the second and fourth Sundays of each month from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

For more information about the UT Health Northeast Welcome Waggers program, please contact Rhonda Scoby at (903) 877-7075.

For more information about Therapet and volunteer opportunities, visit the Therapet Website.

NOTICE: Protected health information is subject to electronic disclosure.