The most accepted terms for this field are Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA). AAT involves working with someone when a specific goal has been identified. If you do this as a volunteer, you will work with a professional who will assist you in selecting goals for different individuals. AAA are those activities designed to strengthen someone's quality of life. Usually performed by volunteers, they are generally "meet and greet" activities.


Meet Golden Charlie

To Wounded Soldiers, Therapy Pets are Golden
By Israel Saenz, The Caller-Times, November 11, 2007

FORT SAM HOUSTON — Charlie waited in a relatively empty lounge. It was a Saturday, and most of the lounge's usual visitors — the people he was there to see — were out of town. But Charlie wore his typical content expression, and when a young man using a cane walked in, the man immediately recognized Charlie and gave him a hug.

Charlie licked him in return.

For the wounded soldiers at the Fort Sam Houston Warrior and Family Support Center who know the golden retriever by name, Charlie does not bite or bark. He does not judge. He is friendly and accepting, feeding off the affections of wounded men and women who miss their families, pets or both.

Soldiers at the 3-year-old center who face months or years of recovery at the nearby Brooke Army Medical Center say Charlie's visits give them respite from the memories of war, the pain of recovery and the loneliness of not having friends or family nearby.

Not just anyone can take their pet to facilities like this — Charlie is a trained and registered therapy animal. But his Corpus Christi owners, who make 310-mile round trips once a week to the center, say there is something about Charlie that transcends that training — they say he's special. "He loves all people," said owner Michele Yehezkely, 47. "He really enjoys every moment."

Michele and husband, Amir, know that many of the 600 soldiers receiving treatment at the medical center — site of the Defense Department's only burn unit — are too far from home to see their own loved ones. And the veterans who know Charlie agree on one thing: When he licks their hands or wags his tail, he is not doing it out of pity.

Army Spc. Jeff Srisourath lumbered up stairs at the center using a cane in September. After reaching the lounge, Srisourath, 24, politely said "hi" to the Yehezkelys, then leaned on his cane to greet Charlie.

"Hey, Charlie," Srisourath said as he roughly ran both hands through Charlie's thick golden mane. Charlie excitedly licked Srisourath's hands.

The Minnesota National Guard member was driving a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Camp Fallujah, Iraq, 11 months ago when an improvised explosive device blew through it.

Srisourath blacked out. When he woke up, he angrily stood and raised his weapon, and then went back down. The blast had removed his left boot and shattered that ankle, making it swell to twice its size. Srisourath has been receiving physical therapy at the medical center ever since and expects to be there another five months. His foot has bones fused in several places and can't move from side to side.

And he has other problems. "Any loud noise I hear gets me startled," he said. "Anything that sounds familiar to a gunshot gives me flashbacks. I can't sleep for, like, five days straight sometimes. "Recovery is physical and mental."

Srisourath, whose family lives in Minnesota and Hawaii, said Charlie reminds wounded soldiers of home, and simpler times.

"Say they have dogs at home, and they really can't get home," he said. "This dog helps them mentally. He gives them assurance. They seem more relaxed and calm."

The center typically receives about 5,000 visits from the public each month, but the number of animal-therapy visitors to the center has grown in recent years, said Warrior and Family Support Center Program Coordinator Judith Markelz.

"The animal therapy people came to us, and I thought it was a wonderful idea," she said. "These men are adjusting back to society — they are never going to be the same person. This makes the transition a little easier."

A way to give
The first animal-therapy visitor showed up there two years ago, Markelz said. There now are six regular visitors, including the Yehezkelys, who bring their trained pets to the wounded soldiers.

"I have always wanted to do something for the soldiers," said Amir Yehezkely, a native of Israel. "And we can see that Charlie does positive things by socializing with them."

The couple moved to Corpus Christi from New York in February 2005 and wanted two things: a way to give to the military community and a golden retriever. They found Charlie to be the friendliest among a litter of puppies soon after moving to South Texas, and learned about the center through an Internet search.

Michele Yehezkely became interested after reading about animal therapy, and the couple spent several months earlier this year training Charlie on their own. They socialized him by taking him to the beach, the store and other places.

"We went out with Charlie as often as we could; we took him out to public places, where he would get used to interacting with people," she said.

Welcome change
Army Spc. Isaac Morgan, who suffered brain damage and memory loss from being near about 20 explosions while in Iraq, said even if a wounded veteran does not have a pet at home, Charlie is a change of pace from the cold, sterile hospital environment, and helps distance them from what he called the 360-degree Iraqi battlefield.

"Most of us have been staying in the hospital," said Morgan, a 20-year-old San Francisco native who served in Iraq from April to July and has been at the center since late summer. "You don't see anything but doctors. It's nice to see something from the outside."

Warrior and Family Support Center staff refer anyone interested in being an animal-therapy volunteer to register their pet through Delta Society, a nonprofit group based in Bellevue, Wash., that trains volunteers and registers them and their pets to volunteer at health-care facilities.

Delta registers any domestic animal that has shown it has been trained or is of the right temperament for dealing with strangers; it also requires owners to take training courses for dealing with people who are victims of trauma. It cost the Yehezkelys about $300 to train Charlie at a local facility and register him through the organization.

Delta Society research support worker Michelle Cobey said the organization has not kept track of how many volunteers have trained to visit wounded soldiers but said she's noticed more of them. "Research shows contact with animals reduces blood pressure and has other health benefits," she said. "It's also a motivational thing for people in therapy to continue with their exercises." The organization has registered dogs, cats, rabbits and llamas.

Owners' role
Cobey said that with animal-therapy volunteers, both ends of the leash are important. While Charlie never has experienced conflict, his owners have.

Private investor Amir Yehezkely, 42 and a member of the Westside Rotary Club, served in the Israeli Air Force from 1985 to 1988. "I know what it's like to be left on the base for the weekend and how important it is for someone to come see you," he said. "I understand what it's like when someone cares."

He learned early about the sacrifices of war, with an assignment he and other Israeli primary school students had to complete in October 1973. Israeli forces were fighting back advancing Egyptian and Syrian troops in the three-week Yom Kippur War.

"The teacher asked us each to send a letter to a soldier," Yehezkely said. He sent a package of cards, chocolate and other items and said he never expected to hear back from the soldier. "Weeks later I got a letter from the soldier, telling me how much he enjoyed the package — especially the letter. I know how effective it is to have support from civilians."

Years after his own service in the Israeli military, he moved to New York and married his wife in August 1996. In 2001, Michele Yehezkely was a Washington Heights public school teacher about 20 minutes away from the World Trade Center that September.

When planes were flown into the towers one morning, administrators told staff no one was allowed to leave or enter the school.

"It tells the whole story when you see someone scrambling to pick up their child," Michele Yehezkely said. "It was a terrifying day for all the U.S., but highlighted (for me) by the fact that I could see the smoke."

After moving to Corpus Christi and finding Charlie, they decided he would be the best way to give back.

Health benefits
Research on the benefits of contact with animals during healing is not new. State University of New York researcher Karen Allen in 1995 reported that in a study of 48 people with physical impairments ranging from muscular dystrophy to spinal cord injury, within six months of being provided with service animals the participants as a whole needed 70 percent fewer hours of home care.

But the physically wounded are not the only ones who need support. During their visits to the hospital, the Yehezkelys comfort families with relatives receiving treatment. The support center is equipped with video games, Internet-connected computers, baked goods and toys for family members who go there when their relatives can't receive visitors at the hospital.

Charlie pulled away from his owners last spring and walked up to a woman whose son — wounded in Afghanistan — was hospitalized at the medical center. Amir watched from a distance as Charlie comforted the woman for the next hour.

"She literally sat down with Charlie for an hour, and it looked like they were both getting a lot out of it," he said.

The woman's son died in September, but she has stayed in contact with the Yehezkelys since then.

"People sometimes ask me how a dog can help," Amir Yehezkely said. "I say it's very easy for a person to hug a dog. It's not easy for them to hug me."

The Delta Society informs owners that their pets may get fatigued of human contact after several hours at treatment facilities, but the Yehezkelys said Charlie can stay at the center for as many as six hours.

"They say dogs emotionally can only take so much," Amir Yehezkely said. "In our case, we find Charlie is unlimited. He accepts people in all social situations."

The couple received a letter last month from the woman whose son died in September. It reminded Amir Yehezkely of the Israeli soldier.

"She asked us to pray for her and think positive thoughts," he said. "She also asked if Charlie ever becomes a father, she would love to have one of his sons.

"We replied, 'Of course.' "

The Delta Society is a national nonprofit organization that trains and registers pets and their owners for the pets to act as animal therapists for ill or disabled individuals.
Started: 1977
Based in: Bellevue, Wash.
Trained: 10,000 owners and their pets
Source: The Delta Society

Want to know more about Charlie?
Breed: Golden retriever
Age: Almost 22 months
Hobbies: Running on the beach, digging holes, playing Frisbee and tearing bark off of palm trees.
What: A facility at San Antonio's Fort Sam Houston, near Brooke Army Medical Center
Serves: Wounded veterans and visiting family members by providing diversions such as Internet, DVDs and games. About 600 veterans are being treated at the medical center.

Contact Israel Saenz at 886-3767 or

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