Smiling Visitors: Georgetown’s Most Pup-ular Therapy

Ruth Olsen was training her new dog, Maggie, when the instructor said the canine would make a great therapy pet. “That sounds like fun,” Ruth thought.

Fast forward 11 years. Today, Ruth, her husband Tom, and 45 dog and handler teams provide pet therapy across Georgetown, comforting struggling elementary schoolchildren, overwhelmed college students, hospital patients, and lonely seniors. “We know we’re out there doing something for our community, helping people,” Ruth says. “[Pets] make people feel better, happier, and more relaxed. We call them the Smiling Visitors, because dogs are always happy, and they make people happy.”

Pet therapy isn’t just for hospital patients or students —it’s also for everyone around them; patients’ families, administration, nurses, doctors, and teachers. “Everyone is stressed,” Ruth says. “If we can help put a smile on their faces, it makes a big difference.”

A DAY AT THE PAW-FFICE

Ruth is a therapy instructor and evaluator with Pet Partners, a national organization that registers therapy dogs and other animals, including horses, cats, rabbits, and birds. Maggie and the Olsen’s other dog, Bella, went on to earn their therapy badges before passing the torch to the couple’s new dog, Rascal.

Tom’s love for pets goes beyond therapy, as he also heads the 440-member Sun City Pet Club, which has helped furnish the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter’s disaster relief trailer. The club donated  $12,000 in funds and supplies last year to local animal shelters and rescue agencies.

Ruth has trained 115 dog and handler therapy teams, and their pawprints can be found all over town at elementary schools, Southwestern University, the Georgetown Project’s after school program, The Nest, St. David’s Georgetown Hospital, Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute, Rock Springs, nursing homes, and assisted living and memory care facilities. The pets bring peace and relaxation simply by being a calm presence and letting folks pet them. One of Ruth’s favorite memories is of a patient who was in the hospital due to uncontrolled high blood pressure. After a therapy dog was allowed to sit by her on the bed, her blood pressure dropped for the first time in four days

STAYING PAW-SITIVE

Pet Partners handler Mary Beth Applefield and her dog, Gracie, provide pet therapy

For struggling students, dogs inspire confidence and improve reading skills through the Read with Me and Walk with Me programs at Georgetown elementary schools. Students with difficulty reading or talking in class read a fun story to a dog once a week for the whole semester. “We don’t try to correct them,” Tom says. “We let them fumble over words so they learn to enjoy reading and not be afraid of it. They go back feeling special because they got to read to a dog.” He says it never gets old hearing the excitement in a child’s voice who says, “I finished a book. I never finished a book before!”

In the Walk with Me program, children with special needs are encouraged to be more outgoing; they give treats, teach tricks, and walk dogs around their school. “They are so proud to be in charge of a dog,” Ruth says. “To see them take that position—having a right no one else did—is impressive.”

The Olsens have also taken pet therapy to Southwestern University, where nervous freshman, those stressed during finals, and staff members are happy to interact with the dogs for a few minutes of relaxation.

Sometimes the dog simply serves as an excuse to start a conversation, as Tom learned when he and Bella visited a lady on an oxygen tube. She kept to her room at an assisted living facility, but a brief chat ended up turning into a two-year conversation. “Here’s a lady who never went out for activities other than meals, and now she had someone. It allowed her to have a conversation with someone,” he says.

From giving kids a confidence boost to helping hospital patients heal, Ruth and Tom are glad to play a part in uplifting people.

And then, 2020…

COVID-19 changed everything. The shutdown of schools and lockdown of senior care facilities meant the end of pet therapy, which was discouraging to the Olsens; they know this is when people need therapy most. Seniors in care facilities are isolated from families, and teachers and students face an uncertain school year ahead. “This is when they need us,” Ruth says. “We want to do something, but we can’t. I understand it, but it’s just sad. We have those wonderful, amazing animals that could help them.”

In the meantime, they are looking for a way to reach out to schools, possibly with a pen pal project like one they started for first responders. Pet Partners teams and Sun City Pet Club members send fun letters,  pictures, and jokes about their pets’ activities at home to the Georgetown police and fire departments to show appreciation and help combat the stress they’re going through.

To learn more about pet therapy, contact Ruth at 6pawstraining@gmail.com.

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