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Pet Walk

September 11, 2020

Air Force Veteran Sonya Heilmann says her therapy dog, Jock, a seven-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi (pictured above), seems sad since he cannot visit patients in medical centers. The visits are his favorite activities.

“He really needed to go and do his job. Once we get to the hospital and I put his little vest on, he gets a bounce in his walk. It looks like he’s actually smiling.”

Heilmann, who lives in Marion, Iowa, is a volunteer with Pet Partners, which promotes the health benefits of animal-assisted activities and therapies, which use specialized animals for patients’ benefits. She and Jock have visited patients in their region several times per month since 2016.

Pet Partners partnered with VHA in 2019. The goal of the partnership is to bring the health benefits of the human-animal bond—which is the beneficial relationship shared between people and animals—to more Veterans.

Research shows that this bond can lower blood pressure, lessen anxiety and pain and decrease feelings of loneliness.

To uplift the importance of physical activity, in addition to animal companionship, Pet Partners will host the annual World’s Largest Pet Walk 2020 event on September 26.

Anyone can participate from anywhere. Heilmann and Jock are participating to support her recovery from a knee injury and help raise awareness about Pet Partners.

“My plan was to go out and walk at least half an hour. Walking is very good for my knee therapy.” The walking is good for both her and Jock, she explains.

“Corgis are herding dogs. They need to get out and have exercise and some sort of enrichment every day. Once I see how much fun Jock is having when I’m outside in the sunshine and fresh air, I’m feeling much better. My mood has improved.”

Funds raised for Pet Partners from the Pet Walk will help make therapy animal visits possible and help launch Pet Partners’ Animal-Assisted Crisis Response Program.

The Pet Partners partnership, which is managed by VHA’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE), has promoted other Pet Partners activities, such as encouraging families and children to read to their pets and virtual pet visitation. There are plans to provide training webinars for volunteer animal handlers like Heilmann. One of the most meaningful visits was their first, Heilmann said. She and Jock went to see a young boy undergoing cancer treatments. As he visited and cuddled with Jock, the boy said, “Oh, I’m so happy, I love you, you’re the best little dog, I wish I could keep you.”

“Here he is with tubes and wires on him but for a few minutes his eyes were just glowing. I thought this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing with Jock.”

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