On Sept. 19, several families drove through the Pass Christian Library’s Drive By Children’s Reading Program, “We Are All Ears,” to say hello to the Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi, including Bobby the Pug and Heather Deaton of Diamondhead.
Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization animal therapy group, coordinator Mike Bowin said.
The group works with Pet Partners who set the rules and register the handler and the animals, he said.
According to its website, Pet Partners promotes the “health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted interventions” and is the “nation’s most prestigious nonprofit registering handlers of multiple species as volunteer teams.”
“Pet Partners teams visit with patients in recovery, people with intellectual disabilities, seniors living with Alzheimer’s, students, veterans with PTSD, and those approaching end of life, improving human health and well-being through the human-animal bond,” the website states.
There are about 30 to 35 teams which participate with Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi, Bowin said. Teams are made of one handler and a dog, he added.
During more “normal” times, Bowin said, the teams visit hospitals, nursing homes, pediatric care facilities, rehabilitation facilities, mental health facilities, and libraries.
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions set forth, Bowin said the teams have been limited as to where they can visit.
Bobby the Pug is a registered therapy dog and prior to 2020, he and his handler Heather, paid several visits to Woodland Village in Diamondhead.
“My favorite part of visiting the seniors is seeing who’s going to light up when they see Bobby,” Heather said in a June 2018 interview. “They won’t remember me, but they remember him. I love it.”
Now, Bobby is capturing the hearts of children through a virtual storytelling hour at the Pass Christian Library.
Heather is immunocompromised, which makes social distancing a must for her health.
She is also a survivor of Chiari Malformation I, a condition which caused her brain to herniate out of her skull into her spine, which left her confined to a wheelchair for a year, until she inexpelicably began walking again.
Heather was also diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and narcolepsy.
But, Heather said that, now, it’s more important to her than ever to volunteer.
“It brings everyone, including Bobby and me, a sense of normalcy during all this,” she said. “It gives the kids something to look forward to, to see the dogs. Bobby is happy and active in his videos. It’s a nice happy pick-me-up for for everyone.”
Heather and Bobby record story time at the Pass Christian Library and children can click the link on the library’s website or watch the videos on Facebook.
Heather said that’s important to remain positive, especially during this time.
“I can do my part to try and encourage others,” she said. “Everyone needs that right now.”
Bowin said that the pet teams help lift peoples’ spirits.
He said that there are two things he knows about hospital patients.
“One, they probably don’t want to be there and two, they are not feeling good,” he said. “We knock on the door and introduce them. It’s almost a little shock to them, but then a big smile breaks out. It makes it all worthwhile, a break in the routine and lifts their spirits.”
The goal of pet therapy is to “bring sunlight into peoples’ lives.”
“There is something about the presence of animals that makes a world of difference,” Bowin said. “Therapy animals are born, not made.”
Bowin said that the organization is always looking for interested handlers and dogs.
Meetings are held on the second Saturday of the month at 10:30 a.m. at Gulfport Memorial Hospital’s South Building Room 5.
An hour prior to the meeting, Bowin said there is a new member orientation. He also encourages interested parties to bring their dogs in order to determine if the animals would be suitable for therapy.
“People can make an educated decision about being involved,” he said. “There is an online course and Pet Partners has a checklist. It also depends on how quickly and if the animal can be trained. If you’re going to do it, it has to be something you really want to do. The rewards are really there.”
Learn more about Pet Partners at www.petpartners.org.