"Faith" Healing: An Animal Experience
Animal-assisted therapy unleashes unconditional love
by Robin Tierney
Since the first Battle of Flowers Parade in 1891, Fiesta has blossomed into San Antonio's signature festival, a family-friendly alternative to Mardi Gras. This year's celebration, taking place this week, involves 110 events put on by 106 nonprofits using fun to raise funds.
Churches participate, presenting mariachi worship services, concerts, and feasts. Some use proceeds for programs like Bible studies, while Colonial Hills United Methodist Church's alcohol- and smoke-free Family Fiesta benefits Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels.
Amid Fiesta's crowds, confetti and kaleidoscopic color are reminders that faith-inspired action takes unexpected forms—such as therapy teams of volunteers and animals who help people in healthcare and assisted living facilities, schools and shelters.
Therapy Animals of San Antonio (TASA) sponsors Fiesta's annual Fiesta Pooch Parade on Saturday, which wags its way along 2.6 flower-fringed miles. The nonprofit, all-volunteer organization lives its mission to "bring people and animals together for healing" hundreds of hours each year.
Donna Dickerson volunteers with Faith, a 4-year-old black Lab/Border Collie mix. Dickerson's day job is chaplain at San Antonio State Hospital, and volunteering with Faith gives her another way to help people cope with physical, emotional, and personal struggles.
Inspired by the uplifting effects of therapy animals, Dickerson became certified with Faith as a therapy team in 2011 and joined TASA.
TASA's therapy teams work with adults and children. In animal-assisted activity (AAA), individual or multiple teams visit vulnerable populations. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves individual teams collaborating with health professionals to meet specific care goals. "Therapy Teams interact with abused children, ill and disabled persons, individuals experiencing a health crisis, families under stress, disturbed adolescents and the elderly," Dickerson explains.
"Faith and I visit adolescents as a Therapy Team at the San Antonio State Hospital, a psychiatric facility where I am employed as a chaplain," says Dickerson. "Our visits are usually one to two hours long, and we visit weekly. I receive referrals for specific kids from their treatment teams, usually the psychiatrist or psychologist." Dickerson and Faith engage with them individually, or in a small group of their peers, in animal-assisted activities.
Occasionally they provide animal-assisted therapy—working directly with a social worker or counselor who is using the animal-human interaction to "facilitate a treatment plan goal." AAT can help people who have not responded well to traditional treatment.
Previously Dickerson worked as a hospice chaplain and acute care hospital chaplain, specializing in crisis ministry with patients and their families. Now she strives "to help persons with mental illness who may be struggling with a sense that life has no meaning, that God is punishing them or has abandoned them, or believe that their illness is the work of demons or Satan." Sometimes, she says, these beliefs stem from problematic theologies at odds with spiritual and psychological well-being.
As a chaplain, she tries to "meet the person where they are in their spiritual journey, no matter what their religious background."
How do companion animals like Faith connect with individuals in crisis? Does God communicate through non-human animals?
"I share the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi and Teilhard de Chardin that recognizes the sanctity of creation and the interconnectedness of humans and nature," Dickerson explains. "Francis held that all creatures, humans and animals, have the ability and duty to praise God. Not only are animals able to praise God in their own special ways, but they communicate God's unconditional love and acceptance back to us."
"Animals offer a non-judgmental, welcoming presence. Often that is what people need most."
The word "animal" derives from the Latin anima, which means "spirit, breath, or life," she notes. "We are all God's children, born of that first breath of the Spirit as it moved over the face of the primeval waters."
"The special magic of therapy animals is in their ability to share God's unconditional love and acceptance with the suffering stranger, the wounded warrior, the disabled child or adult, those who are marginalized and alone. They offer a non-judgmental, welcoming presence," Dickerson says. "Often that is what people need most."
How did Dickerson find Faith? While volunteering at a shelter leading pet bereavement groups, she thought about adopting a potential therapy dog. "I had a mental picture of a small, fluffy terrier-mix. But the shelter's volunteers unanimously [suggested] Faith because of her friendly, laid-back personality." The shelter staff called her "Faith," recalls Dickerson—"a perfect name for a chaplain's dog, I thought."
After walking Faith around the shelter's busiest, noisiest sections, Dickerson realized Faith was unflappable. "And smart enough that teaching her the basic 'canine good citizen' obedience commands required of a potential therapy dog was easy, even for a neophyte like me."
Faith quickly revealed her abilities. "When my father had to go to a dementia facility, I sometimes brought Faith along to see him. Invariably other elders wanted to hug and pet the dog too. I saw how much joy it brought them, and how much Faith enjoyed the attention. She didn't mind wheelchairs and walkers, and was also good with the occasional shrieking small child who was there to visit granddad or grandma. I knew then she would become a great therapy dog."
Dickerson also has several rescue cats and a stray pit bull mix, Fiona, who Dickerson found in the streets. Faith keeps them company at home while Dickerson shepherds Fiesta Pooch Paraders at the starting line.
Robin Tierney, an award-winning arts and outdoors writer based in the South, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Animal images courtesy of Therapy Animals of San Antonio.