(Above) Photo by Rich Smith
Local HABIT Teams Give Back
For these local HABIT (Human Animal Bond in Tennessee) volunteers, their pets provide an opportunity to give back to the community.
By Lucy Morris
Christian, Daisy, & Jingle
While dogs are the norm, almost any animal can be certified as a therapy pet through HABIT. Just ask Christian McDonald, who in addition to having a certified Greyhound named Daisy, also has a certified cat named Jingle. “Jingle is really chill. He loves to be held like a baby,” Christian laughs. “I got him at about four weeks old, and I used to work in a nursing home, and he’d come to work with me, so that’s what he knows and loves!”
Christian says she, Daisy, and Jingle have witnessed a lot of special moments during their visits. “When we were working in the skilled care facilities, some of these people had dementia or other cognitive disorders. To see the residents that were very withdrawn or depressed just light up and talk to Daisy or Jingle and cuddle them, and to see them engage when maybe they hadn’t in a long time, that’s meaningful.”
Today they visit the UTC Center for Women and Gender Equity, and their bright outlook remains the same. “Life is hard for students, especially those who may feel alienated by society,” Christian says. “I know Daisy and Jingle go in there, and they don’t judge. If someone wants to love on them, they are more than happy to oblige,” she laughs. “And I’m there to be a non-judgmental friend who will listen.”
These days, Christian and Daisy visit the students weekly, and Jingle will join them every four or five weeks. “If Daisy misses a visit, she pouts,” laughs Christian. “All I have to do is say, ‘Let’s go see Sara [the center’s director] and her friends,’ and she’s at the back door.”
When it comes to her “why,” Christian says it’s about making the most of her privilege. “It’s an easy way to serve others and to show compassion. I am so blessed to be in such a great place that I am able to do it.”
Photos by Rich Smith
Jim & Jupiter
Jim Lewis has spent his life helping others. He’s the director of family ministry for a local Methodist congregation. For more than a decade, he’s been a firefighter and department chaplain, and he also serves as a crisis responder following major events and disasters throughout the state. A few years ago, he started doing mental health chaplaincy for various organizations in the area.
If that’s not enough, Jim also realized he wanted to do therapy dog work, which is where his Greyhound, Jupiter, comes into play. “We’ve always had dogs – we have a zoo at our house – but I knew I wanted to get a breed that I could use as a therapy dog,” he says. “I researched breeds that were best for it, and Greyhounds were always in the top five of every list I saw. So, I partnered with the Greyhound Retirement Foundation of Tennessee, an organization that acquires retired Greyhounds from tracks and adopts them out, and that’s how I found Jupiter. I’ve had him for about three years now.”
Jim and Jupiter got involved with HABIT, and Jim credits the organization’s approach, values, and leadership. “I loved what I saw in HABIT. They were open to me and Jupiter focusing on mental health, which is what I’m passionate about,” he says. “I’m honest about the fact that I’ve struggled with depression, but I’m finding healing and hope. So, I’ve always had a passion to help others who are struggling.”
Jim says Jupiter has a way of helping individuals open up. “We’ve laughed and cried with patients, and it’s not about putting words with it. It’s just about enjoying the moment,” he explains. “Doing therapy dog work is an amazing way to help people feel connected in a world that feels more and more disconnected. It’s a beautiful way to connect with others, share stories, and offer a sense of hope through the joy so naturally experienced in a dog.”
Photo by Emily Long
Meg & Nugget
“Nugget is a clown,” laughs Meg Kiessling, a mathematics lecturer at UTC.
Nugget is Meg’s 5-year-old Golden Retriever and partner in crime, and the two visit Children’s Hospital at Erlanger the last Thursday of every month. “It’s always amazing that not only the patients’, but the parents’ and relatives’ faces really light up,” she says. “They’re amused by Nugget and want to pet her, and in a sense, it distracts them from their problems.”
According to Meg, not only are she and Nugget best buddies, Nugget is popular all around town. “She has friends in every department at Lowe’s and Ace Hardware, and there are certain doctors who are always on the lookout for her. She has grinch feet, so she’s easy to spot,” laughs Meg.
Meg has had other therapy dogs in the past and even has a second one today, named Cammie. “I moved up here from Atlanta when Siskin was first starting their program back around 1998, and my dogs at the time, Dottie and Angel, got certified. I’ve been doing it ever since!”
While some of the visits can be tough, Meg admits they have given her more meaning. “It really gives me a bit more insight and understanding of the difficulties that other people might have in their lives.” One visit that she recalls vividly followed the Chattanooga school bus crash in 2016. “Cammie was with me at the time, and she could just sense something,” recalls Meg. “She was much more willing and eager to go up to the nurses and sensed their need for extra support that day. It just touches you how much these dogs understand about these situations, and they want to do all they can to help.”
Speaking of a dog’s intuition, Nugget’s got one of the best. “She can sense and just knows all kinds of things. If I come home from work and have had a bad day, she knows, and she’ll act like a bigger clown than usual. She seems to know what everybody needs.”
Photo by Emily Long
Steve & Beau
When Steve Lewis’ mother was transitioning into an assisted living facility, he started to notice how often residents expressed sadness over missing their pets. At the time, he was nearing retirement age and looking to get a new puppy, and it struck him that he could use this opportunity as a way to give back. “I decided to combine my desire to take on a new puppy with the needs of residents at assisted living facilities.”
From there, it was all about finding the right dog. “During my research, I came across a Cavapoo, which is a King Charles Cavalier mixed with a Poodle, and that was it,” he remembers. “I located Beau, let him get a little bit older, and then joined a formal puppy training program.”
While Steve was excited to start this new adventure, he didn’t anticipate that he and Beau would connect so strongly. “During this time, Beau became much more than a retirement project,” he says. “We developed an extremely close bond that I had not expected. I found myself wanting to take him everywhere with me, and it was no burden doing so.”
Along the way, Steve says he noticed similarities in raising children and raising Beau. “You’ve heard that one year in a dog’s life is equal to approximately seven years as a human. So, although it seems like forever until a puppy is house trained and responds appropriately to more complex commands, it actually happens quickly,” he says. “It provided me a well-needed reminder that Beau’s life is finite, and it was important to take advantage of all the time we had and achieve his purpose.”
Steve and Beau have been visiting assisted living facilities consistently over the last eight years, and their trips include everything from weekly dogs shows in the common gathering areas to visiting individual resident rooms. They also visit children and teens at Bethel Bible Village. “In every circumstance, Beau has adapted to the situation and made me so proud of him.”
Photo by Emily Long
Ed, Julie, & Winston
Husband and wife Ed and Julie Turner and their Maltese-Yorkie mix, Winston, have spent the last several years visiting Siskin West, a subacute rehabilitation and long-term care facility. “Some of the people, you can look at them and tell they’re having a tough day,” says Ed. “When they see Winston, all of a sudden, it changes. It makes a difference.”
Julie’s desire to get a therapy dog came after her own experience in the hospital. “I really wanted to get a therapy dog after my breast cancer experience,” she explains. “I thought it would be so wonderful to bring a dog into a medical setting to provide comfort for people.”
Plans didn’t go exactly as they had intended, but that’s what led Ed and Julie to Winston. “The dog we actually ended up getting right after my cancer, she barely lets us pet her, let alone anyone else, so that didn’t work out,” laughs Julie. “We love her very much, but she wasn’t a good fit for a therapy dog.” But all it took was one serendipitous visit to Facebook, and Winston would be theirs. “A friend of mine was trying to find a home for these puppies, and Winston’s face popped up. I said, ‘I have to meet this dog.’ We adopted him, and it was like instant love!” Julie remembers.
Ed, Julie, and Winston look forward to their weekly visits, though COVID-19 has put a temporary pause on them. “I used to think volunteer activities had to be some sort of grand thing where you had to make a big splash,” Ed says. “But we found this, and the fulfillment comes one person at a time. You know you’re making a difference in the lives of these people.”
Julie adds, “My parents set such a good example for me of the difference you can make through small acts – just showing up and being there for people in moments of importance or vulnerability. We feel fortunate to be able to listen and have folks share their joys and sorrows with us.”
Photo by Emily Long
Courtney & Emmett
“I’m a hardcore dog mom,” laughs Courtney Griffin. A veterinarian at Animal Clinic Inc. of Chattanooga, Courtney got Emmett, her 2-year-old West Highland Terrier, when he was just nine weeks old. He was a vet school gift from her parents. “He rode out the last six weeks of school, and then we moved to Chattanooga!”
Courtney could tell early on that Emmett would make a good therapy dog. “He’s loved everyone since he was teeny tiny, which is kind of out of character for his breed, so that’s why I wanted to get him involved,” she says. “In vet school, we did a lot of continuing education on the human/animal bond, and it’s incredible to see how much animals do for us on an emotional level. When I got Emmett, I saw his personality blossoming and bringing people joy, so this was something that could increase our bond and make other people happy in the process.”
Their assignments? Visiting students at DuPont Elementary and Brown Academy, as well as participating in the Hamilton County school district career fair and an after-school reading program. “Before COVID-19, we would spend an hour each week at The Bethlehem Center, and kids would read to Emmett,” Courtney explains. “It’s cool seeing kids who are reserved or shy opening up around a dog.”
Today, not only are Courtney and Emmett a dynamic therapy team, but Courtney also handles behavioral evaluations for HABIT. “Basically, we’re testing animals out in different situations to evaluate their temperament,” she explains. “This helps guide their placement when it comes time to start visits.” HABIT teams pair up with hospitals, schools, youth organizations, elder care facilities, and more.
Courtney admits that they always leave with funny stories, but the impact it’s had means more. “These visits have really reinforced my appreciation for the field that I’m in and the therapy program as a whole. The kids love him and appreciate him, and it all goes back to that human/animal bond.”
Photo by Emily Long
Kathy & Maggie
Maggie is a celebrity of sorts in the dog world. “She got to throw the first pitch at a Lookouts game last year!” says her mom and handler Kathy Mindel.
Kathy and Maggie have worked as a HABIT therapy team for the last five years and have gotten to experience the joys of making someone’s day at a number of different facilities around town. “Maggie started the Ruff Reading Program at McConnell Elementary, and she’s also worked with the Northside Neighborhood House, Hixson Middle School, Erlanger, and some remote area medical clinics,” Kathy explains. “Sometimes kids will say, ‘I never liked reading until reading to Maggie,’ or someone who’s nervous about seeing the doctor or getting a tooth pulled can pet her and find a sense of calm. It’s awesome.”
Kathy says that she and Maggie make a great team because they have such a strong bond. “Many times, there are no words needed. Her eyes tell me everything, and she must read what I say through my eyes also. It’s really special and unique.”
Over the course of their time as a therapy team, Kathy and Maggie have many fond memories, but one in particular sticks out. “I remember a teenage girl at the hospital was having a really bad day, and Maggie got in her lap, and the girl petted and petted her. It just cleansed her body of the bad,” she says. “We also ran into a doctor who was walking down the hall, and he literally sat down in the floor next to her and didn’t say a word. Just petted and petted her until he got up and said, ‘I needed that so bad.’ To be able to help someone in that way was amazing.”
These experiences have had a significant impact on Kathy. “You hear about those things but then to actually see them – it’s my therapy too. I feel like I’m helping, and I’m so pleased and happy to be a part of that. It’s just great.” CS
Photo by Emily Long