By Mia Osborn, Lake Martin Living

For most people, cuddling up to a friendly dog is one of the fastest ways to relax. Experts have harnessed the soothing effect of interacting with animals through Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). The Bill Nichols State Veteran’s Home in Alexander City is one of many institutions across the country benefitting from recent interest in AAT. For Mary Spencer and her Great Dane, Stella, working with the Bill Nichols AAT program has also been of personal benefit.

AAT, also called pet therapy, brings specially trained animals into hospitals and assisted living facilities to improve the quality of life for those in long-term care situations. The use of animal companions to soothe the infirm or elderly is not new. There is record of animal interactions being used to treat the handicapped in Gheel, Belgium, in the 800s. Several studies have recorded the positive effect of AAT on residents of different institutions, such as nursing homes, hospitals and mental health facilities. These studies have explored the use of cats, horses and even dolphins as therapy animals, but not surprisingly, the most common AAT choice is man’s best friend.

Mary Spencer and her therapy dog, Stella, pose with Francis Beaulieu and Roger Thornton in the courtyard of Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Boone.

Mary Spencer and her therapy dog, Stella, pose with Francis Beaulieu and Roger Thornton in the courtyard of Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Boone.

The Bill Nichols AAT program was created with support from the American Red Cross. Hunter Smart, a program specialist with the Red Cross’ Alexander City office, said many are surprised to hear that his work has anything to do with animal therapy.

“Most people, when they think about the Red Cross, immediately think of two things: disasters and blood donations,” explained Smart.

Smart works for the Red Cross’ Service to Armed Forces division (SAF). Smart coordinates emergency notifications for every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, reaching out to soldiers overseas to bring them home in cases of family emergency. The SAF also provides services to those who have already served their country, in the form of bringing entertainment and healing to local veterans.

“We created a pet therapy program to bring therapeutic services to our local veteran community,” Smart explained. “Our focus is on institutions like VA hospitals and veteran’s homes.”

Smart feels close to the program because he is a veteran himself. He first came to Bill Nichols with a desire to help in any way he could.

“Hunter came to us and said, ‘What can the American Red Cross do for you?’” Recalls Shonda Young, activity director at Bill Nichols. “Pet therapy was the number one thing the guys requested. So for about a year and a half now, that’s what they’ve done.”

Smart manages a team of 11 volunteers and their canine companions across 35 counties. Most of the volunteers are located in South Alabama. One intrepid volunteer, Mary Stone, drove up to Bill Nichols from South Alabama with her dog once a month, but the Alexander City area was in need of a local pet therapy volunteer.

That’s where Mary Spencer came in.  An animal lover and long time resident of the area, Spencer was looking for a way to give back to the community while she recovered from double knee replacement surgery.

She met Hunter Smart when she began volunteering at Bill Nichols during their monthly birthday party program. Like Smart, Spencer was eager to use all her resources to help the veterans. When the need for AAT volunteers came up, she knew she had found the right job.

Spencer has always been a dog lover. She and her husband, Mark, have turned their farm near Kellyton into a haven for rescues. The Spencer farm is home to nine dogs, who range in size from a chihuahua up to Stella, the 4-year-old Great Dane who accompanies Mary Spencer to their twice monthly AAT visits.

“We have all shapes and sizes,” Spencer laughed.

Stella is one of only two Spencer dogs who was not rescued. She was a gift from the Spencers to their daughter, Sarah. Stella was just 6 weeks old when she came to live with the Spencers. As she grew, she proved to have enough love to share with the entire family, and beyond.

“Stella loves people,” Spencer said. “When people come to our house, I think she thinks they’re coming to see her.”

Spencer and Stella had explored pet therapy work once before, at USAmeriBank in Alexander City where Spencer’s husband, Mark, is senior vice president. Spencer enjoyed the experience, but she has found working with veterans to be even more rewarding.

Stella, for her part, seems to view every veteran as a new friend. But she is always gentle, keeping close by Spencer without a single bark or jump. Stella is still in service dog training, but Spencer said her pet has always had the right personality for the job.

“She’s big, but really docile. If she was bouncy, it wouldn’t work,” said Spencer.

The pair begins their rounds in the common areas of Bill Nichols. Then, they journey down the hallways of each of the four floors to visit individual rooms. Some veterans remember the pair and wave them over, eager to pet Stella and visit with her owner. Others leave their beds and armchairs and come to the doors of their rooms just to get a glimpse of the dog.

Young said an AAT visit can give residents a fun social interaction in the moment, but the benefits of the therapy can still be felt after Stella leaves.

“It has a calming effect,” she said. “It’s especially good for those with animals at home they don’t get to see anymore.”

According to Smart, the best part of pet therapy is seeing veterans open up in the presence of an animal.

“A lot of these vets won’t talk to strangers. They may not even talk to family members. But when they see that dog come in, they light up,” Smart said.

It’s true that Stella gets people talking. Everyone wants to know about their new canine counselor, including how old she is, what she eats and how much she weighs (174 pounds). Several veterans share stories of dogs they used to own. Even residents who can’t or don’t wish to speak reach out to touch Stella’s fur.

Smart and Spencer both hope to expand the pet therapy program, adding more volunteers to let veterans know that they have not been forgotten.

“It’s important to take time to listen to their stories, to remind them they’re still loved and cared about,” said Smart.

Editor’s Note:

This article was first published in the April 2016 edition of the Lake Martin Living. It is republished here with permission. Click here to view a full digital copy of the magazine. The article begins on page 32.

The Alabama Nursing Home Association thanks the Animal Assisted Therapy volunteers at Bill Nichols State Veterans Home for making a difference in the lives of the veterans, and Lake Martin Living for telling their story.