By Martie Thompson

When Kristi Leonard’s youngest child began school, she decided she’d like to get back into pet therapy, a volunteer hobby that she had been active in when she lived in California a number of years ago. Pet therapy animals are different from service animals and emotional support animals; service and emotional support animals serve their handler/owner, while therapy animals serve with their handler/owner to serve everybody else.

In California, Leonard said there was an organization that not only helped register pet therapy teams, but also helped find places for them to volunteer. There was not, in 2011, such an organization here. So, Leonard started calling local hospitals, trying to find a place to volunteer with her pet therapy dog.

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“I found that there were about 100 local pet therapy teams that were registered and independently volunteering here,” she said. “But everybody was recreating the wheel. And it is not an easy process.”
After meeting with several other pet therapy volunteers, the idea was planted that the area needed an organization to help people become registered as pet therapy teams and to know where to volunteer. The group held an expo in October 2016, with the intention of getting all the organizations and all the interested parties together in one place. They anticipated attendance by 100 people and were pleased to actually welcome 250.

“We thought, ‘Maybe we are onto something,’” Leonard said.

The Therapy Animal Coalition, a true coming together of many local therapy animal groups, was formed as a 501 c 3 in March 2017. The coalition held its second expo in October 2017, this time a full day event. The most recent expo was held in March 2019.

Leonard said that the expos aim to reach three audiences: first, the expo acts as a recruiting tool for aspiring pet therapy teams. Registering to become a pet therapy team is not an easy process and requires training sessions of weeks or months, depending upon how well the animal is already trained. Dogs, for example, need to be able to obey basic commands like sit, stay and walk on a leash.

“We are asking the animal to get in someone’s personal space,” Leonard said. “The animal must be calm and really love people. But the temperment of the animal if the most important aspect.”

Leonard said that of the approximately 225 pet therapy teams registered locally, the majority of the animals are dogs. But there are also three miniature horses, a full sized Clydesdale, three cats and a rabbit that are registered.

The second audience for the expo is the already registered teams. Leonard said the expo can act like continuing education for these teams, with workshops designed to help them find places to volunteer.

Finally, and new in 2019, the Therapy Animal Coalition partnered with the University of North Florida to offer a new program for animals and health care, particularly for mental health and physical therapy offices. Here, animals may be used as part of treatment and the expo offered training for medical professionals as to what pet therapy animals can do if they are prescribed. For instance, patients with some forms of traumatic brain injury might open a bag of dog treats or brush a dog.

Leonard said the Therapy Animal Coalition is always seeking new volunteer pet therapy teams as well as new organizations that could benefit from a pet therapy program. Besides obvious places like hospitals and schools, Leonard said pet therapy is available at the airport as well as the Duval County Courthouse.

“My favorite part about pet therapy is that we witness little miracles all the time,” Leonard said. “We’ve seen people absolutely come out of their shells when they see the pets.”
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Photos courtesy Therapy Animal Coalition

Sunday, a Goldendoodle, and his handler, Kristi Leonard, founding board chair of Therapy Animal Coalition, help a young boy practice reading at San Marco Library.


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