Lending A Paw: Central Arkansas Pet Partners Provides Animal-Assisted Intervention in Stressful Situations


Little Rock attorney Allan Gates, the president of Central Arkansas Pet Partners, never expected to become a volunteer doing hospice work. 


“It doesn’t sound like what you do for fun,” Gates says. “But I ended up shadowing Merry Zakrzewski while she was doing a dog therapy visit at the Arkansas Hospice Ottenheimer Inpatient Center at CHI St. Vincent. There was a young Black woman with an illness related to sickle cell anemia. She was unresponsive when we went in. Merry took her dog over and put his paw on the bed. The young woman’s mother moved the daughter’s hand over the dog. The young woman opened her eyes and smiled.

Gates and Lucy at work.

“There were tears all over. The visit really hooked me. I thought, ‘Man, if my dog, Lucy, can do that, I want to be a part of it.’ We have been going to Arkansas Hospice pretty much every Sunday since then.” 


Lucy is a friendly, frisky dog when she is off work. But she is calm and quiet when she does animal therapy visits. 

Central Arkansas Pet Partners President Allan Gates with Lucy.

“The dogs do all the work,” Gates explains. “The mission of Pet Partners is to improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond. It is a phenomenal experience to watch a really skilled therapy dog work. Some therapy animals are purebreds, and others are not. One of my favorite therapy dogs, Homer, is an absolute mutt rescued from a grocery store parking lot. He is awesome.”


Harriet Hawkins, director of volunteers at Arkansas Hospice, said when the dogs walk in the door, it is a joy to everyone — but especially to the families of the loved one who is dying.


“The patient may be asleep, but still knows that the dog is there,” Hawkins says. “The families know they are coming, and it gives them something to look forward to. The staff absolutely loves them coming in.”

Mim Hundley and Homer pay a visit to a local elementary school.

Hawkins said they have operations in 43 counties, and pre-pandemic, had 14 different dog therapy teams visiting their facilities. The dogs have to be certified by one of the three national dog therapy organizations: Pet Partners, Therapy Dogs International or Alliance of Therapy Dogs. 


In addition to hospice, pet therapy teams regularly visit patients at other medical facilities. It is something that brings joy to the teams and the patients they visit.


“It is something we all enjoy doing,” Gates says. “When COVID shut down the visiting, our members missed it. The dogs missed it, too. Talk to any of our members or the places we serve – it is all about the dogs. It is crazy how good they are about this.” 


Central Arkansas Pet Therapy teams visit facilities such as Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the Arkansas Heart Hospital, the Easter Seals Youth home, and the Little Rock airport. 


Pet therapy teams from Central Arkansas have done Animal-Assisted Crisis Response work after traumatic events such as a mass school shooting in Franklin, Kentucky; the aftermath of an on-campus suicide in Concord, New Hampshire; multiple tornado recovery scenes; and at the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Children’s Center for unaccompanied migrant minors near the southern border.


“When children cross the border without a family member or guardian, the Border Patrol takes them to this facility or another like it,” Gates explains. “We go in and visit with the kids. A lot of times the children are seemingly happy and normal. It was good to see how well cared for these kids were.


You wouldn’t know that many had experienced real trauma. Some of the children were undoubtedly abused. They were all from Central America and had traveled a godawful distance without family. Some looked like kids you would want to hold their hand crossing a street, much less a continent. It is interesting to see Lucy work with those kids.”

Another place teams visit patients is at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. UAMS Volunteer Coordinator Mattie Thacker said it is very moving to watch the teams work with patients. 

Mattie Thacker, UAMS volunteer coordnator.

When COVID hit, they were not allowed to bring pets into hospital rooms. 


“We pivoted and started doing animal therapy for the staff exclusively,” Thacker says. “The staff was really stressed out from COVID and the staffing shortage. Just taking a break and petting the dog meant the world to them. It really helped with their stress levels and morale.” 

Livvy soaks up the attention at the Little Rock Marathon Expo.

There are about 15 different Special Pets Offering Therapy (SPOT) teams who volunteer at UAMS. 


“You can really feel the difference when a therapy dog is there,” Thacker says. “They get right up on the beds, and patients pet them. Sometimes you can see their blood pressure go down. It especially benefits people who have been in the hospital a long time. A therapy dog can really make their day. They are tired of being in there, and it reminds them of their dog. They tell us all about their dogs at home. It is the same story over and over again. It is just an overwhelming emotional response.”


Lucy, a 9-year-old standard poodle, has something in common with sick patients. She was born blind. 


Gates got a call that there were two blind puppies who were going to be put down unless they were adopted immediately. His daughter adopted one who regained her sight naturally. Lucy, on the other hand, had cataract surgery at 18 months old. She doesn’t have perfect vision but gets around normally. 


“This is a great feel-good story where kids can hear she had an operation, and now she is fine,” Gates says. “Children can have confusion about what is going on. When a dog is there that can do a few tricks and be petted, it totally changes things. Without a dog, I couldn’t help. I’m the facilitator. The dog does all the work.”