Story and photos by Nancy McGuire.
“Dogs bring out the best in us.” So goes the television commercial. And that is precisely what Heart of Texas Therapy Dogs hopes to achieve with each visit they make.
Co-founded by Sheryll Baker and Barbara Wilson in 2003 through a confluence of events, the Heart of Texas Therapy Dogs (HOTTD) is a local non-profit member of the National Alliance of Therapy Dogs. The all-volunteer association services the metroplex area with therapy dog visits. Prior to the outbreak of COVID in 2020, their 150 members were making more than 70 visits a month throughout the DFW area. Most of their visits were to hospitals and healthcare facilities, senior homes and centers, as well as schools and special event appearances.
All handlers and dogs who participate with the Heart of Texas Therapy Dogs are members of the National Alliance of Therapy Dogs. They must pass a background check through the National Alliance and participate in observer sessions prior to gaining full membership. Handlers and dogs are fully vetted to make sure both can safely navigate different situations when making visits. HOTTD provides its members with social events throughout the year, allowing humans and dogs alike an opportunity to connect with one another.
Therapy dog visits come in a variety of forms and can mean different things to different audiences. Perhaps the visits reduce patient stress, cheer up the elderly, or provide a welcome distraction to employees or to school children of all ages, from elementary to college. Many believe dogs have an innate sense of knowing how to comfort humans and have the uncanny ability to bring peace and joy during times of stress or crisis.
However, like many in-person activities during the onset of the pandemic, therapy dog visits came to a screeching halt. Sheryll Baker, current President of HOTTD, has had to pivot in ways she never could have anticipated in her 29 years of therapy dog work. “COVID all but shut us down,” says Baker. She goes on to say that, “at a time when people needed to de-stress the most, we could not use our dogs to help others.” It has been a challenge to keep her members’ enthusiasm up, too, when opportunities disappeared or when new strains of COVID have popped up only to close doors she thought were opening.
One institution that quickly opened up its doors to HOTTD visits was University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW). Administration at UTSW realized their employees, who had been on the front lines for many months, needed some sort of relaxation distraction. They reached out to Baker and HOTTD in May 2020 to arrange outdoor, socially distanced therapy visits for their staff. Although they could not visit hospital patients, their visits with staff were just as gratifying, says Baker. Unfortunately, other institutions have not been so quick to allow therapy visits. After 16 years of service to the VA Hospital, HOTTD has yet to return. Nursing homes, too, have not been able to allow visits out of an abundance of caution for their residents.
The silver lining for HOTTD members has been therapy visits to DPD sub-stations, with passengers moving through DFW Airport, and to schools. College campuses such as SMU, UNT and TCU have all requested visits for HOTTD members. Almost all of the Dallas College campuses had regularly scheduled visits throughout the fall semester so that their students could enjoy dog kisses and friendly tail wags. These visits have helped students and staff relieve stress and isolation brought on by the pandemic.
One location that has continued to welcome HOTTD visits is the Southwest Patrol Division of the DPD. Shortly after the police shootings in downtown Dallas in July 2016, Sheryll reached out to DPD and started regular visits to help officers cope with the tragedy of losing a couple of their own assigned to their division. On one recent visit, the officers happily greeted Sheryll and her Collie named Emma as well as fellow member Sandi Meyers and her tiny Dachshund named Sammy. The joy was evident as many of the officers pet the dogs with one exclaiming, “My blood pressure drops 150 points every time these dogs visit!”
Despite all the challenges, Baker and HOTTD members have remained committed to their mission of bringing joy and comfort to all through therapy dog visits. They are welcoming new members at a steady rate and are hopeful that doors will continue to open back up as we as a society learn to live with COVID. For those who love dogs and want to share that love with others, the desire has not waned. HOTTD members understand the unconditional love only a dog can share. As Doris Day once said, “I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source.”
For more information about HOTTD, go to https://www.heartoftexastd.org/.