By Elaine Omann

  1. What motivated you to form the Therapy Animal Coalition?

When I moved to Jacksonville six years ago, I looked for an organization to help me find a volunteer opportunity. When I couldn’t find one, I just started calling hospitals to find a program where I could volunteer with my dog. Mayo Clinic was looking for a final therapy team for their pilot program, Caring Canines. As I was a handler with previous experience, they asked me to be the lead volunteer. There were already a few people out there with similar ideas, and we got together last year and hosted our first Therapy Animal Expo, which surpassed everyone’s expectations.

  1. Where did you obtain your skills and training to meet the required needs for this organization?


I’ve done pet therapy with both of my dogs for a total of about eight years. After several weeks of training there is a rigorous evaluation to pass in order to become a therapy animal team.

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I learned more in my leadership role at Mayo Clinic because we grew the program from a pilot to a robust program with 21 volunteer teams. I was asked to help a few other facilities get their programs off the ground. I got certified to be an instructor for Pet Partners and started a local organization called Pet Partners Jax that is still training teams today.

  1. How do you determine the needs of people who desire the animal therapy?

Our biggest goal is to get as many therapy animal teams out there volunteering in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and all the other places with programs. To do that, we provide educational opportunities for pet owners to learn about pet therapy and how to go about getting trained and registered to volunteer with their pet. We are partnering with all the local facilities and organizations with programs to provide a place for them to attract registered therapy animal teams. In addition to that, we are creating tools for facilities that want to start programs.

  1. How do you help people train to be a therapy animal provider?

In order to become a therapy animal team, a pet owner must start with a very well trained pet. We tell folks to consider passing a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test to understand if they are ready for pet therapy. The CGC was created by the American Kennel Club to reward dogs who have good manners at home and in the community. Once the dogs have all the basic skills needed, they must register with a national therapy animal organization. When trained and evaluated, you can obtain insurance coverage that most facilities require before you can volunteer.

Our educational programs, the Speaker Series and the Therapy Animal Expo, in addition to our website, were designed to help pet owners learn what it takes to become a therapy animal team.

The best therapy animals have calm temperament and love interacting with people. I often say, I’m lucky to be on the other end of the leash to watch the way these animals touch lives.

  1. What animals are being used in therapy roles currently? What is the most unusual?

The first two therapy cats were recently registered in Jacksonville, with more testing soon. At our Therapy Animal Expo, several people showed interest in getting their mini-horses registered. This summer at least five mini-horses will be evaluated. We had a pig handler call us inquiring how to get her piglet trained to do pet therapy. She is currently working with Jax Humane to get an exception to have the pig take the puppy classes there, as pigs can be as intelligent as dogs and are very capable of being trained.

A second Speaker Series event if scheduled for August, and a second Therapy Animal Expo will be on Oct. 7, 2017. Visit to receive updates on events.

Photo courtesy Elaine Omann

Kristi Leonard, President of Therapy Animal Coalition.

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