Stryker is a 6-year-old golden retriever with a mission. Aptly named after John Wayne's Sgt. Stryker in "Sands of Iwo Jima," he visits World War II Navy veteran Henry Stanley twice a month at the Southwest Louisiana War Veterans Home in Jennings. Sometimes, he climbs up in bed beside him.
“He showed up right after I came here,” said Stanley, who fought at the invasion of Okinawa, the last and biggest of the Pacific Island battles. “We’ve been friends ever since.
“I look forward to his visits. He always lifts me up.”
Stryker wears a uniform and has a bulletproof temperament.
“We expect a lot out of our animals,” said Terry Anseman, Pet Partners of Acadiana coordinator and evaluator since 1998. “Teams average four to five service visits per month. We’re all-volunteer and nonprofit.”
“And we have more requests than we can handle.”
Pet Partners is a 40-year-old national organization with a five-year presence in Acadiana. First started in partnership with Lafayette General Medical Center, it now serves a variety of clients besides veterans, including patients in recovery, the elderly, children with special needs and those approaching end of life.
Its 34 teams cover 50 facilities, in addition to group therapy for transition inmates with the Sheriff’s Office and psychiatric therapy for the military. The only organization of its kind to register multiple species for animal-assisted interventions, currently there are two miniature horses, a dwarf Dutch bunny and a miniature pig in training. The youngest handler is 10 years old. Animals must be at least 1 year old, no kittens or puppies.
Pet Partners’ training of licensed instructors, evaluators and handlers is the gold standard in the field.
“Dogs are prescreened and qualified as to the complexity and unpredictability of the environment,” said Anseman. “Some go to more predictable environments. Alzheimer and memory-impaired units are considered more unpredictable. Teams get to pick where they want to go.”
The animals wear vests, their handlers have ID badges and all teams carry liability insurance. They are re-evaluated ever two years, a requirement that distinguishes Pet Partners from similar groups. Each team undergoes special training after which they are evaluated.
“We look for how well the human interacts with the animal,” said Anseman. “We simulate the environment — medical equipment, noises, touch and overly exuberant clients — mostly to see if the animal has a challenge level.”
It’s not unlike basic training, and the operation projects a certain military precision.
“Growling elicits an incident report,” said Anseman.
According to the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Biotechnology, research of the past decade substantiates that companion animals help people in demonstrable ways, including reduced blood pressure and lower levels of stress and anxiety. Among the well-documented effects in humans are benefits for social behavior, interpersonal interactions and mood, self-reported fear and anxiety, and improved mental and physical health, especially cardiovascular diseases.
Animal-assisted interactions are divided into two classes: animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities or visits. A professional sets the goals.
“Sessions are 45 minutes to an hour, an hour and a half tops, depending on the population we’re serving,” said Anseman. “The therapist sets the goals for the day, how long to stand, how long to use the impaired member, etc.”
Treatment modalities vary. In physical therapy, animals may play fetch or be brushed by patients in rehab. Anseman has two dogs herself and goes to Our Lady of Lourdes, Lafayette General Medical Center and Opelousas General South. She and her dogs assist with both occupational and physical therapy, such as gait training and stairs.
Referrals come from online or by word of mouth, according to Kathy Ardoin, Pet Partners social media chair and a two-year volunteer with Abby, a 5-year-old rescue rat terrier mix. Ardoin and Abby visit nursing homes and schools, day cares, special events, autism programs, reading programs, day camps and special presentations for animal aid groups.
Pet-centric businesses also function as recruiters.
“They’re able to recognize dogs with appropriate temperaments,” Ardoin said.
Many veterans and elderly remember having dogs, and it allows them to reminisce and have a conversation. Stryker always goes to the rehab unit at the Southwest Louisiana War Veterans Home, where he sees 10 to 12 patients and, afterward, visits individual rooms by request. He also visits the Alzheimer's unit.
"It's amazing how they respond, maybe never speaking, but having a big smile and a pat for him," said Stryker's handler Sharon McCarthy, adding the dog attends all their special events, including Veterans Day celebrations.
“People know his name, not mine," said McCarthy. "They’re so happy to see him.”
The feeling appears to be mutual, at least for Stryker.
“He sleeps all the way over, but jumps up at the Jennings exit with his tail wagging.”