JACKSONVILLE – Budding therapy animal trainers can often find themselves with more questions than answers.
Luckily, as this niche form of volunteerism grows in popularity, nonprofits and advocates are now making it easier to answer those questions.
On Oct. 7, the Therapy Animal Coalition, a nonprofit that assists both new and veteran therapy animal teams hone their skills, will host its second annual Therapy Animal Expo at The Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership.
The expo will give both new and old therapy animal trainers the opportunity to find volunteer positions and information before they jump into this particular brand of volunteerism.
According to Coalition Secretary Kathy Burns of Jacksonville said, prior to the expo and events like it, “there was no toolkit” on how to begin training a therapy animal.
Volunteering with therapy animals is on the rise in Northeast Florida. Coalition estimates that there are roughly 200 therapy teams actively operating in the area, up 50 from last year.
Leaders in the field say not only are more volunteer teams actively participating, but more businesses and organizations have begun to realize the benefits a therapy animal can have on the human psyche.
“Without question” there’s been an increase, said Rev. Elizabeth Teal, an Orange Park resident who has worked with therapy animals and ministry animals since 1985. “When I first started this – now, I’m old, I’m not that old, but I’m old – I was on the phone begging people to accept one animal into their facilities, just a single animal on at trial basis. Now, just last week, I got a facility that wanted 30 teams for their facility.”
Now, Teal said, Northeast Florida has the reverse problem from what she encountered when she was just beginning in her career. Now, the supply cannot meet the demand.
It’s why, she said, it is vital that there is an organization that can arrange expos like these – to inform newcomers and provide ongoing training to veteran teams.
“There simply isn’t enough teams,” Burns said. “And that’s what TAC is all about. It’s there to serve the needs that are growing exponentially in our community.”
Denise and Mark Umphress, who live in Oakleaf, attended the expo last year to gather more information about how they could go about volunteering with their two dogs, Buddha and Cleo.
The couple registered both their dogs as therapy dogs in under a year after attending the expo.
Early on, the two knew their Labrador Retrievers had a knack for therapy work. She recalls one instance where Cleo pulled on her leash to get to a veteran who no longer had legs.
“She jumped up in the man’s lap, in his wheelchair, I was horrified, I said ‘I’m so sorry,” Denise said. “He said ‘no, no, please let her stay,’ and he was crying. She knows who needs her. The man’s wife came out and said ‘he has not showed any emotion since he came back from war.”
Cleo just qualified to soothe patients at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. Buddha is adept at calming children who live with autism.
Mark said it’s important for a therapy dog to have no reaction if they’re touched anywhere on their body, no matter how hard.
Often, he said, autistic children will tug on Buddha while he remains stoic.
Both dogs volunteer for the Courthouse Canine program, which brings therapy dogs into courtrooms to soothe victims during depositions and other dramatic moments during a case.
“You see it affect people’s emotional health, which directly affects their physical health,” Denise said. “I’ve seen it directly…It’s just a complete change. It takes away all negative energy.”
The second annual Therapy Dog Expo will have more than a dozen organizations participating with informational booths and demonstrations on various kinds of therapy animal training and organizations recruiting volunteers to participate in therapy animal work.
There also will be experts on hand to answer questions for creating new therapy opportunities at businesses.
“We need [an organization] on both sides of the leash and on the facilities side to bring these things together regardless of what affiliation and institution that we’re with,” Teal said. “[TAC] is genuinely fulfilling a need, which is why I donate my time. What they’re doing is vital.”
Tickets for the event start at $10.