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Pandemic underscores demand for pet therapy

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


what you need to know

  • Wonderful Animals Giving Support (WAGS) Pet Therapy of Kentucky was founded in 1998
  • WAGS founders are Sharon Gretsinger and Linda Laun
  • The goal of the nonprofit organization is to use pet therapy to improve health, independence, and quality of life.
  • Dog, cat, rabbit and bird owners can train to be WAGS Ambassadors

Wonderful Animals Giving Support, also known as WAGS Pet Therapy of Kentucky Inc. is looking to double down on its ambassador teams. WAGS was founded in 1998 to bring pet therapy to people living in Kentucky. The pandemic has shed light on how crucial the work of volunteer teams is. Dog, cat, rabbit and bird owners can volunteer their time at the nonprofit and become a WAGS ambassador team that travels across the state and uses pet therapy to improve health, independence and quality of life.

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

You can find these pets in schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and even at Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Airport with their handlers. Micki Thomas is a board member of WAGS, one of the nonprofit’s nearly 60 ambassador teams, and is Leo’s manager. She has volunteered her time for the past three years and says the pandemic has illuminated the need for therapy pets. She would like to see WAGS ambassador teams nearly doubled to help improve the great need in the Commonwealth.

“Recruiting new teams of ambassadors is very important to us because we have a lot of facilities on the waiting list that call us and ask, ‘Have you found us a team yet?’” Thomas said.

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

The kids at Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School in Louisville are no strangers to dogs. They have had WAGS at their school since last year at the recommendation of the school’s family resource coordinator according to school principal Conni Jo Strange.

Thomas says the school is just one of 15 Jefferson Public Schools (JCPS) to benefit from therapy animals.

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

Even though dogs can’t talk, children in the classroom like to read to them. Thomas says that the best dogs for the program are those with calm temperaments. Which is exactly what he noticed in his neighbor’s dog, Nala.

“I had seen Nala since she was a puppy and saw how friendly she was, as well as her temperament. I thought she would make an amazing therapy dog. He was ready for testing for about a year and a half, almost two years,” Thomas said.

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

Bryan Fulkerson, Nala’s handler, became a team of WAGS ambassadors after being briefed by Thomas on the impact that people volunteering with their dogs could have on others who depend on pet therapy. He took a chance when he retired and hasn’t looked back since. He has served WAGS for just over a year, and his wife is also a board member of the nonprofit along with Thomas.

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

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

Pet owners should click here for more information on becoming a WAGS volunteer or becoming a team ambassador. Owners will train, then owner and pet will be tested in various settings before becoming an ambassador team. People who wish to donate to the non-profit organization should click here.

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