Pandemic emphasizes demand for pet therapy

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Since the pandemic, the need for pet therapy in educational settings and public places according to Louisville nonprofit Wonderful Animals Giving Support (W.A.G.S.) Pet Therapy of Kentucky has grown. 


What You Need To Know

  • Wonderful Animals Giving Support (W.A.G.S.) Pet Therapy of Kentucky was founded in 1998
  • W.A.G.S. founders are Sharon Gretsinger and Linda Laun
  • The goal of the nonprofit is to use pet therapy to enhance health, independence and quality of life
  • Dogs, cats, rabbits and bird owners can train to be a W.A.G.S. ambassador

Wonderful Animals Giving Support, also known as W.A.G.S. Pet Therapy of Kentucky Inc. is trying to double their ambassador teams. W.A.G.S. was founded in1998 to bring pet therapy closer to people living in Kentucky. The pandemic has shined a light on how crucial the work of volunteer teams is. Dog, cat, rabbit and bird owners can all volunteer their time with the nonprofit and become a W.A.G.S. ambassador team which travels around the state, using pet therapy to enhance health, independence and quality of life.

Micki Thomas smiles as children read books with her dog Leo. (Spectrum News 1/Diamond Palmer)

You can find these pets in schools, hospitals, rehab centers and even Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Airport with their handlers. Micki Thomas is a board member of W.A.G.S, one of nearly 60 ambassador teams with the nonprofit and she’s Leo’s handler. She’s volunteered her time for the last three years and says the pandemic has illuminated the need for pet therapy. She’d like to see W.A.G.S. ambassador teams nearly double to help curve the great need in the Commonwealth. 

“Recruiting new ambassador teams is really important for us because we have lots of facilities on the waitlist that call us and ask ‘Have you found us a team yet,’” said Thomas. 

A student a Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School reads to Leo while Bryan Fulkerson pets Nala. (Spectrum News 1/Diamond Palmer)

Children at Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School in Louisville are no stranger to dogs. They’ve had W.A.G.S. in their school since last year through the recommendation of the school family resource coordinator according to the school’s principal Conni Jo Strange.

Thomas says the school is just one of 15 Jefferson Public Schools (JCPS) benefiting from animal therapy. 

Last year, in 2021, the National Library of Medicine released a study that found therapy dogs decrease stress, increase positive emotions, promote engagement in learning and reduce task avoidance and aggression in the classroom.

Although the dogs can’t talk, children in the classroom sure like to read to them. Thomas says the best dogs for the program are ones with calm temperaments. Which is exactly what she noticed in her neighbor’s dog, Nala.

“I had seen Nala since she was a puppy and saw how friendly she was, plus her temperament. I thought she would make an amazing therapy dog. She was ready to test at about a year and a half, almost two years old,’’ said Thomas.

Nala licks a students face at Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School. (Spectrum News 1/Diamond Palmer)

Bryan Fulkerson, Nala’s handler, became a W.A.G.S. ambassador team after Thomas informed him of how much an impact people volunteering with their dogs could make for others that rely on pet therapy. He took the chance when he retired and hasn’t looked back since. He’s served with W.A.G.S. just over a year, and his wife is also a board member of the nonprofit alongside Thomas.

“I had recently retired, so I was looking for something to take up some of my time and the timing was perfect,” said Fulkerson.

Fulkerson believes there’s no better way to put a smile on a child’s face. Even if that means the children don’t remember anyone but the dog’s name.

Pet owners should click here for more information on how to become a W.A.G.S. volunteer or become an ambassador team. Owners will train, then the owner and pet will be tested in various settings before becoming an ambassador team. People looking to donate to the nonprofit should click here.

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