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Animal Healing
Gaelyn Derr and her furry “therapists” literally bring the warm fuzzies to people in need.

by Linda Marion

Gaelynn Derr with Pepe
Gaelyn Derr with Pepe

It was an impetuous black cat with yellow eyes and a bib of white on his chest that helped Gaelyn Derr BS’92 find a new career.

The cat, named Pepe, “adopted” the Derr family about 11 years ago. He had been living nearby with some students, who, when Derr offered to get the cat neutered, said, “Sure.” After that, says Derr, “Pepe just sort of moved in.” Bold and brash, Pepe lives mostly outdoors in order to check out the goings-on in the neighborhood. An unusually gregarious feline, he has been known to lie down on the front sidewalk with his feet in the air in the hope of catching a belly rub from a passerby.

“I’ve always had cats, and my husband is also a cat lover,” says Derr. “We started off with two cats, then my son brought a third one home one day; another was inherited from my daughter; so [with Pepe], we now have five.” She is convinced that having animals around is therapeutic. “They don’t care if you’re having a bad hair day, they just love you unconditionally.”

At the time Pepe appeared, Derr, whose U of U degree is in business with an emphasis on marketing, was working with a high-tech company in Salt Lake City. A coworker there, whose big friendly cat Calvin was providing animal therapy for patients at the VA hospital, encouraged Derr to get Pepe involved. But upon considering the complexities of preparing an animal for therapy service, plus the fact that Pepe was getting on in years, Derr reluctantly decided that it wasn’t a good idea. Even so, a seed had been sown.

In 2001, when the high-tech bubble burst nationwide, Derr got laid off, which gave her an excuse to associate more closely with her friends from the Utah Animal Assisted Therapy Association (UAATA). She eventually volunteered to serve as event coordinator. Then, when UAATA’s executive director left in 2003, Derr took over the top job.

The executive director is the only UAATA employee who is paid; all others—instructors, evaluators, and animal handlers—are strictly volunteers. As a result, Derr spends much of her time writing grant proposals and soliciting funding to support the program. (Eighty percent of UAATA’s revenue comes from local foundations.)

Little Man Tate
“Little Man” Tate provides comfort to Ursula, a resident at the Federal Heights Rehabilitation and Nursing facility in Salt Lake City.

“We have some wonderful volunteers, who are required to pay for training but tend to be limited financially,” says Derr, “and I will bend over backwards to make it easy for them to be part of our group.”

The idea behind animal-assisted therapy, she explains, is that certain domesticated animals—cats, dogs, guinea pigs, birds, even miniature horses—are capable of promoting healing in humans. Controversies persist surrounding the true benefits of the therapy, although it is becoming increasingly accepted by health care workers, clinical practitioners, and educators as an alternative supplement to traditional treatment for many types of illnesses and disabilities. Even though the benefits tend to be subjective and are difficult to measure, some research has shown that petting a companion dog, for example, can decrease a patient’s heart rate and blood pressure, while at the same time increasing skin temperature, providing an overall relaxing effect.

While the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy is primarily anecdotal, anyone who has seen a disabled child’s eyes light up when presented with a purring cat to pet, or an elderly person’s trembling hand reach out to caress a cuddly dog, can’t deny that the experience holds therapeutic value.

UAATA is an affiliate of the Delta Society, founded in 1977 in Portland, Ore., and currently based in Washington State. As such, UAATA follows the society’s guidelines for pre-screening evaluation and training of both the animals and their handlers. “Delta now requires 16 hours of training,” notes Derr. “That’s a lot of time for volunteers. Some travel here from northern and southern Utah to attend two-day training sessions, all at their own expense.” They do it, she says, “because they are incredibly dedicated people who have seen the important therapy that animals provide.”

The animals, too, are carefully assessed before being approved by the association. “Many of them are rescue animals,” Derr explains, “and we don’t know their past, so it’s essential that they undergo rigorous evaluation.” Are they controllable and predictable? Do they like people? Can they adjust to the noises and smells of diverse environments? And what about loud noises? Each animal is given serious scrutiny, in regard to personality and character, before it is pronounced fit for the program. The animal’s handlers are allowed three chances to make that happen.

The Delta Society’s Pet Partners® Team Evaluation/Screening puts animals through a series of exercises including being placed in a crowded environment, exposed to angry yelling and loud noises, confronted with “exuberant and clumsy petting,” and presented a treat (which they are expected to accept politely and gently), among other situations. Once an animal has passed muster, demonstrating that it can manage a variety of demanding circumstances, it is then given a thorough examination by a veterinarian.

Approved handlers and their animals visit senior centers, hospitals, homeless shelters, summer camps, educational and mental health facilities—anywhere the volunteers are asked to assist. Potential sites are always assessed to make sure that the staff of each facility requesting UAATA’s services will welcome and support the team of volunteers and their animals. “We don’t send animals to where they’re not wanted,” Derr stresses.

Copper, a toy poodle, likes to sit on Mabel’s lap.

Liberty, a standard poodle, gives an affectionate nuzzle to Liliana, who always looks forward to the animals’ visits. “They just lift your spirits,” she says.

“We also try to serve under-served facilities, because they’re the ones that deserve it most. Some residents in care centers spend their days alone and really look forward to our visits.”

Derr’s role in the animal part of assisted therapy is that of “co-handler”; she often visits the site with the animals and their handlers to monitor the situation and assess the effectiveness of the people-animal interaction.

On one visit last March, Derr accompanied three volunteers and their animals to the Federal Heights Rehabilitation and Nursing facility, tucked away on a side street between the U of U campus and downtown Salt Lake City. Volunteer Nancy Walton, associated with UAATA since 1997, arrived with her dog, “Little Man” Tate, a Chinese crested hairless, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a tiny T-shirt. “He has a full wardrobe,” Walton joked. Petite and irresistibly homely, the dog sports long tufts of fur poking up from his forehead and feet, and sad eyes that beg compassion. Walton’s daughter, Kim Weddington BS’87, brought her toy poodle, Copper, so named because of his reddish coloring. And Stacy Grover led in her black standard poodle, Liberty. With his laughing face and prancing legs, Liberty clearly enjoyed being the center of attention.

“We have three generations of animal-therapy volunteers in our family now,” notes Walton: her granddaughter and her dog also just became UAATA certified. Both Walton and Weddington volunteer at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI), which specializes in mental health and substance abuse treatment. Weddington recalls one visit in particular, when a young man sat in session with his therapist refusing to say a word for half an hour—that is, until Weddington and Copper appeared, when he began to smile and talk, finally opening up to his therapist.

“It’s just so rewarding,” says Weddington. “[Animal-assisted therapy] seems to have a profound effect almost immediately—there’s no waiting around. It’s also good for Copper,” she adds. “As soon as he sees me preparing my therapy backpack, he gets all excited. He even runs to the bathroom for his bath,” she says, explaining that therapy animals “must be bathed [within] at least 24 hours before a visit.”

Walton agrees that the therapy is good for all involved. “I get every bit of enjoyment out of the experience that the people we visit do. Touching someone’s life is so satisfying.” During 11 years of involvement with animal therapy, Walton has made hundreds of visits to an array of facilities, either taking Tate or Abby, another of her five Chinese crested hairless dogs. “The breed is so good with people,” she says, by way of explaining why she owns so many.

Derr, too, is devoted to UAATA’s mission. “My heart is in working for nonprofits,” she says, pointing out that she could seek employment in the corporate sector, if a higher salary and benefits were top on her list of priorities. “In the greater scheme of things, those things are less important than doing for others. I have a roof over my head and food to eat, so all is well. I get so much more from giving than taking,” she says, reaching down to rub Pepe’s tummy.

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