Welcome visitors from the animal world

Portrait of pet partner Maggie given to her human partner, Nan DeWire, after her passing. Maggie and Nan worked as a team for the UNC-based Tar Heal Paws animal-assisted therapy program.


By Maria de Bruyn

Confinement due to health problems can be debilitating. People in such situations are not always interested in conversation but may still appreciate company. Spending time with an animal visitor can bring them both solace and joy. Numerous studies have documented the health benefits of animal-assisted therapy for various conditions.

Nan DeWire has offered such care at UNC Hospital in varied roles since 2007. First, she served as a staff liaison to visiting human-canine teams. In 2015, she teamed up with her dog Maggie [photo above] to visit patients and staff. Since 2020, Nan has teamed up with her canine companion Finn in a therapy team.

Along with about 30 other owner-pet teams, DeWire and Finn are members of the Pet Partners NC Triangle Community group and the national Pet Partners organization, which the community group has been affiliated with since 2023. They include dog owners (adults and children) who work with cats, mini-horses, rabbits and even one bird. Children at least 10 years old can train for a team but must be accompanied by an adult on visits.

The community group maintains the Pet Partners mission to improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond by promoting resources and offering training to therapy teams. Each team undergoes an evaluation every two years to ensure they meet behavioral requirements, such as remaining calm in different circumstances and ensuring the animals enjoy low-key interactions with people they don’t know.

Pet Partners ID card worn during therapy visits.

The local Pet Partners teams currently visit hospices, nursing facilities, schools, and special community events, in addition to twice-monthly two-hour visits to UNC, Duke, Rex, and Wake Med hospitals. The hospital teams receive official IDs and complete registration forms for each visit. They not only see patients but also hospital employees. Staff and patients get cards with descriptions of the visiting canines and can collect them. DeWire remarked that laboratory staff work in windowless rooms much of the day and are especially grateful for the time spent with therapy canines.

Collectible Pet Partner canine cards for people visited by Tar Heal Paws participants.

Visits can leave lasting memories. One year, DeWire and her friend Ed, who was accompanied by his dog Holly, were visiting a UNC medical floor where most patients were dealing with major health issues such as stroke, spinal cord or head injuries, and nervous system tumors. A family entered the hallway from one of the rooms and immediately asked if they could visit with Holly. They hugged and held her for several minutes while crying openly.

The family members appeared to be dealing with great stress, but Holly allowed them to hug her. (This is a requirement for therapy dogs who may not cower or express displeasure by such touch.)  After interacting with Holly, the family looked up and thanked DeWire and her friend for helping them feel more hopeful. They said this visit was the best thing they could have had that day.

After Maggie passed away, DeWire trained her younger dog, Finn, to become a Pet Partner; he will undergo his third evaluation this summer. They have been a working team for about 4 years. They visited staff and patients outside the hospital buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finn demonstrates how well he listens while patiently waiting for a treat. Photo by ©Maria de Bruyn.

Nowadays, DeWire and Finn visit two surgical units in the Chapel Hill UNC main hospital and also interact with patients in the medical rehabilitation unit at UNC’s Hillsborough site. Soon, they will also participate in a new program for elderly people in Pittsboro and remain available for more unusual visits. DeWire anticipates continuing working with Pet Partners for a long time to come: “This is one of the most rewarding things I have done. We help calm people suffering from stress. It offers more rewards than other kinds of volunteering. We contribute to making people feel better and feel happy – everybody wins!”

Judith Young, President of Pet Partners NC Triangle, has provided animal-assisted therapy since 2008. She began with her dog Jackson, followed by Chase, who died in December 2023. Now she goes on visits with Ryder and is training Baby Ben to do this one day.

Participation certificate from the We Are All Ears program.

Young is excited about expanding the program in the Triangle. One goal is regularly visiting schools and libraries where children can read to visiting pets. The National Pet Partners organization also has an at-home program for child caregivers to motivate kids to read to their own pets. We Are All Ears provides reading lists, bookmarks, reading logs and certificates to encourage these home-based child literacy efforts.

If you know of someone who might enjoy a pet partner visit or who would like to train with their pet to become a therapy team, you can contact Young for more information at agiljaxchase@gmail.com

Maria de Bruyn participates in nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers for the Orange County Senior Center and for projects removing invasive vegetation and planting native plants. Her photos are posted on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/bruynmariade/) and in blogs at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com.

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