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A Decade of Pet Partners

09/15/2023
Elisabeth Van Every
Pet Partners staff walking in the first World's Largest Pet Walk.
Pet Partners staff walking in the first World's Largest Pet Walk.

I’d like to introduce myself: I’m Elisabeth Van Every, and I’m the editor and primary writer for the Take The Lead blog. I’m also the writer and editor for the twice-monthly Pet Partners newsletter, Happenings, and I was the managing editor and lead writer for Interactions, the Pet Partners magazine, from August 2017 through the end of 2022 (when the magazine was discontinued). If you read any of these publications, you’ve read my work.

I’m introducing myself now because I’m saying goodbye: After nine years (close enough to a decade!) as part of the Pet Partners staff, I’m leaving in mid-September 2023. And I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate my time with this extraordinary organization and the work and experiences that I’ve been part of in my time here.

Supporting Volunteers

I started with Pet Partners in September 2014, as part of the Program Operations team, the team that provides support for our therapy animal teams and volunteer leaders. In this role, I did some of everything relating to therapy animal team registrations, from answering questions to reviewing registration materials to processing payments. When I started, the registration process was still a 10-page paper packet, and payments were processed manually. Our work days were filled with stacks of paper and I had SO MANY paperclips on my desk! Going through all these packets took quite some time, as did manually creating acceptance letters for teams and licenses for volunteer leaders.

Closeup of a pile of silver paper clips. Image by PDPics from Pixabay
This is NOT a photo of my desk back in those days…but it could have been!

In the summer of 2015, Pet Partners launched a new, completely redesigned website, and with it the Volunteer Center: the dedicated online portal for all things relating to Pet Partners registration, from the steps of the registration process to the resources volunteers need to support their volunteerism. We did have some growing pains with the new registration process, and technical support to help volunteers with the online process became part of the work day—but we did cut down on the stacks of paper and the paper clips. 😉 It was a major development for the organization, and it has led to continual improvements in the registration process and faster review and registration completion for our volunteers—we want you to be able to get out into your communities and volunteer as soon as feasible!

Program Operations gave me the opportunity to interact with volunteers every day, to learn about our therapy animals (without intending to I ended up often being the person who supported many of our rabbit teams, who I fondly referred to as “our bunny folks”), to educate people about our Therapy Animal Program and the benefits of animal-assisted interventions, and to help our volunteers with registration, requirements, and being able to go out into their communities to help others. I had the honor of hearing so many amazing stories about the impact of therapy animal visits, about the careers of our teams, and about how rewarding this work is for our volunteers.

Expanding Our Impact

In August 2017 I transferred to our Development team, where I was involved with marketing and coordinating our strategic partnerships. In this role I was directly involved with our animal-assisted workplace well-being program (AAWW), which brings therapy animal teams to workplaces of all kinds to support employee well-being.

Workers pet a therapy dog during a workplace well-being visit.
A group of employees in a workplace pet and interact with Pet Partners therapy dog Beau.

Over the course of my time in this role, I coordinated dozens of these workplace well-being visits with partners and volunteers, both for one-time events and several ongoing partnerships. I received wonderful stories from these visits, about how therapy animals helped people calm their stress, lower their blood pressure, improve their focus, and make them feel more confident in their work.

This also included working with our partners at Farmers Insurance in their initiative to include therapy animal teams at their mobile claims sites after natural disasters. In my second week in this role, I led the coordination and recruitment of therapy animal teams to join Farmers Insurance at sites in Texas in response to Hurricane Harvey.

A Pet Partners therapy dog team waits to interact with people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Victoria, TX in 2017
A Pet Partners therapy dog team waits to interact with people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Victoria, TX in 2017.

During my 18 months in this role I would do this for a few more hurricane responses, a handful of tornado responses, and several wildfire responses in California, including the Camp Fire in 2018. For one of the wildfire responses, our contact at Farmers told me about the impact our teams had for people who had lost everything, people crying while hugging and being comforted by Pet Partners therapy dogs, and said, “What you do couldn’t be more important.” While the reason for these responses was always upsetting, being able to play a part in supporting people in this way after disasters is something I have cherished, and I feel very humbled to have been part of that.

A german shepherd therapy dog wearing a Pet Partners vest lies on the ground while first responders pet him at a wildfire logistics center.
Staffers for the firefighting efforts at the Camp Fire in California in 2018 pet therapy dog Thorne.

This was also the time that I began storytelling for Pet Partners, which has remained one of my greatest joys. Through the newsletter, the magazine, our team stories, and on social media, I had many opportunities to tell the stories of our teams and volunteers, and of the work that they and the organization do to bring the benefits of the human-animal bond to so many people.

At the beginning of 2019 there was opportunity to reconfigure communications and marketing, and I moved into the role of communications specialist full-time, along with becoming managing editor. Being able to focus full-time on communications and marketing meant I could increase my opportunities to do storytelling and education. I continued to manage the magazine, the newsletter, and the team stories. In summer 2019 we launched the blog (with a huge assist from Haley Etheridge, OTD, OTR/L, whose name you’ll see on many posts in this blog), and that added even more storytelling options for me. I took over media responses and had the opportunity to be interviewed by the New York Times and the Washington Post. And I provided writing and editing services across the organization, helping ensure that all of our materials—from our volunteer educational materials to our marketing flyers, and beyond—were well-written and designed to be attractive and useful.

Beyond my day to day work, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of a number of amazing experiences and positive growth for the organization, and I’m so grateful for those.

Meaningful Growth

Pet Partners launched an international pilot program in 2016. In July 2017 I had the immense honor of being part of the staff cohort conducting the first Pet Partners team evaluator practicum held in Asia, at a wonderful event in Seoul, South Korea. Four new team evaluators completed their training at this two-day event, and told us how excited they were to be able to bring the benefits of therapy animals and high standards of pet welfare to a culture where having pets was still a somewhat novel concept. My colleague who led the practicum (who had been associated with Pet Partners since 2007) told me, with tears in her eyes, that she never thought she would see the day when Pet Partners had a presence in another country, and how proud she was to be part of making it happen. I’m very proud that I got to be part of that too.

A group of people, some holding dogs, pose for a photo. Most of the people are Korean; three are caucasian.
The participants in the Pet Partners team evaluator practicum in Seoul in July 2017. (I’m the one with purple hair.)

I’ve watched Pet Partners launch multiple new program initiatives: beyond the AAWW program I was involved with, the organization has launched Read With Me to support literacy and Walk With Me to support health through walking and movement, as well as our Animal-Assisted Crisis Response program to help support communities in the wake of crisis.

And there is also the advocacy work, which has helped influence legislation around therapy animal access in several states, including therapy dogs in courtrooms in Texas and in school programs in Maryland, and being part of a workgroup in New York that created model guidance for therapy animal-related legislation.

This work led to the creation of National Therapy Animal Day in 2015, which takes place each year on April 30 each year. This day of awareness and advocacy helps educate public officials and the public about the benefits of therapy animals and the importance of standards and access in bringing therapy animals to local communities.

2021 National Therapy Animal Day proclamation from the state of Minnesota
A proclamation issued by the state of Minnesota in honor of National Therapy Animal Day in 2021.

The advocacy work has also gotten Pet Partners involved in advocacy activities at the national level, with participation in Pet Week (formerly Pet Night) on Capitol Hill, which educates federal lawmakers about issues around pets, as well as Meet the Pets events in 2018, 2019, and 2022 specifically for federal lawmakers and their staff members to meet therapy animal teams and learn more about the therapy animal field and inform good legislation around standards and access.

A blond woman crouches down to pet and make a kissy face at a yellow Lab therapy dog wearing a Pet Partners bandana.
At Meet the Pets in November 2019, Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn lavishes attention on a Pet Partners therapy dog.

In 2017, Pet Partners observed its 40th anniversary since being founded as Delta Society in 1977, and celebrated this anniversary with the first conference to be held in a couple of decades. Experts, practitioners, handlers, and volunteers gathered with us in our home city in the Seattle area to network, learn, and celebrate the impact of animal-assisted interventions. While I spent much of the conference helping people at our merchandise table, it was still a joyful experience to see so many enthusiastic, dedicated, and knowledgeable people all together and excited about this field and this important work.

A conference room full of people listening to a speaker at a lectern at the front of the room. There is a display screen on the left side of the room.
A full house of people listens to a speaker at the 2017 Pet Partners conference.

This conference was such a great experience that we did it again in 2019 in San Antonio, Texas, with a focus on the ways in which passion around the benefits of pets could be professionalized and treated as something more serious and more important than just the warm & fuzzy of petting animals. This, too, was an amazing experience, and I loved having the opportunity to take photos at the conference and talk with our attendees.

A ballroom full of people at tables during a gala dinner, with screens for the Pet Partners 2019 conference at the front of the room.
Attendees at the gala dinner at the 2019 Pet Partners conference.

2019 also saw Pet Partners sign a Memorandum of Agreement with Veterans Administration (VA) to bring more therapy animal teams to VA facilities, the first time VA has made such an agreement around animal-assisted interventions. I have been involved in marketing this option to our teams, soliciting stories from handlers who visit at VA facilities or are veterans themselves, and coordinating and participating in interviews for VA communications about this agreement. This particular agreement is especially close to my heart—I’m married to a disabled Afghanistan veteran who has benefited from the presence of therapy animals as part of his treatment, and I’m passionate about bringing this to other veterans. We had the privilege of doing an interview together for the VA about this topic.

Wilson, a chocolate Labrador therapy dog, is petted by a person using a wheelchair who has a prosthetic limb.
Therapy dog Wilson visits with a veteran at the Minneapolis VA hospital.

And in 2022, Pet Partners took one of the biggest steps in the organization’s history and created the Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals (AAAIP). This sister organization was created to support professionals and practitioners involved in AAI with resources, networking, continuing education, and certification. Over the years we had come to realize that while there are many options for volunteer therapy animal teams, there was no specific place for practitioners who are incorporating therapy animals into their professional work. AAAIP is designed to be that place, and it has already made a difference in the field.

AAAIP logo

And this year, 2023, we continued our growth and improvement, with a refresh of our branding to be more contemporary and more aligned with our core values and messages, and a redesigned main website. Later this year there will be an updated Volunteer Center, which will address several of the issues volunteers have experienced and add new functionality to make registration go even more smoothly.

Challenge and Innovation

In 2020 we were all hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course this was a difficult and challenging time for everyone; but it presented a very specific challenge for Pet Partners: How could we deliver on our mission when people had to be separated for their own safety? Much of this work fell on the communications team, and we worked with our Mission, AAI Advancement, and Therapy Animal Program staff, as well as our volunteers, to create ways that people could still benefit from therapy animals.

A gray and white therapy cat sits in front of a laptop for a virtual therapy animal visit.
Pet Partners therapy cat Roger Sterling holds a virtual visit in spring 2020 with staff at one of the facilities where he and his handler Tracy visited before COVID.

This led to a variety of alternative visit options that allowed everyone involved to be safe while still providing the benefits of interacting with animals. It wasn’t long before our teams were visiting and providing the benefits of the human-animal bond again, whether with virtual/video visits and online education, outdoor and window visits of various kinds, or through creative methods such as art and writing.

And these solutions to a difficult problem led to further innovation. Our Mission and AAI Advancement staff looked at all the ways teams were finding to continue connecting with clients, and at the research underlying such activities, and created the concept of animal-related engagement (ARE), which is any activity that Any engagement opportunity that allows participants the benefits of the human-animal bond by encouraging the remembrance of feelings that are commonly associated with interaction with an animal. This concept and the data underlying it led to a white paper, conference presentations, and therapy animal program coordinators at some facilities adapting these ideas to enable them to continue providing AAI to their patients and clients. ARE has greatly expanded the possibilities of AAI and I’m so proud to have played a part in bringing it to the field.

Animal-Related Engagement white paper cover

We also created We Are All Ears, a special reading project focused on reading to pets at home. In the first year of the pandemic, with schools and libraries closed, in-person Read With Me visits weren’t feasible, but we knew that students and families could still benefit from reading with animals. We Are All Ears provided a framework for reading to family pets, stuffed animals, and even wildlife in readers’ yards! And it could be done in person or through video calls, which opened up the options for who to read to—students could read to physically distant family member and their pets, with friends, and as part of remote schooling activities. It was a great opportunity to help keep students focused on reading and benefiting from engaging with animals, even with the pandemic restrictions, and I was pleased to have a hand in providing some of the ideas for reading sessions and promoting this option to schools and libraries for their virtual programming.

We Are All Ears: A Worldwide Read with Pets Project presented by Pet Partners

In addition to these projects, our Programs team created a variety of tools and resources to help volunteers navigate the variety of alternative visit options, as well as circumstances where they might be permitted to visit in person. And since we needed to ensure that we would have team evaluators ready to help our teams renew, as well as welcome new teams, when restrictions eased, the Programs staff also created a new virtual process for training team evaluators. This new training process not only allowed us to work around pandemic restrictions, it also opened up the team evaluator role to new candidates who might previously have been unable to take part due to cost, logistics, or geography. The virtual team evaluator training is now our preferred process and candidates have been enthusiastic about the training and mentoring they receive. This is truly a major innovation in our field and it’s been inspiring to watch our staff and volunteers innovate and adapt in this way, ensuring that more therapy animal teams can be created in more communities.

Celebrations and Community

My time at Pet Partners has also seen the development of several signature events to build community, create awareness, and raise important funds to support our Therapy Animal Program:

Treats & Sweets Day, launched in 2015, runs alongside National Therapy Animal Day, and encourages people to fundraise through baking treats for people and pets. This is such a sweet way to expand awareness and encourage support, and our dedicated bakers mix up something special with this event every year!

A golden retriever therapy dog wearing a Pet Partners bandana poses behind a box full of treats. The box is decorated with Treats & Sweets Day stickers.

World’s Largest Pet Walk, launched in 2017, encourages people everywhere to go out and walk with pets on a Saturday in September (typically the fourth Saturday), as a way of raising awareness about the benefits of walking with pets and our Walk With Me initiative. We also encourage participants to fundraise with their walking events. Over the six years of this event so far, we’ve had thousands of participants all over the U.S. and in several other countries take part, and had nearly every species of therapy animal we register participate, along with some other animals. This is a unique event in that participants can decide on the details of how they take part, whether they organize a big community walking party, or they go out for a walk on their own with their pet. This flexibility has created countless opportunities for people to participate and to support our Therapy Animal Program through their fundraising. And it’s always great fun to see how people choose to celebrate this event and to share the photos and stories from it each year.

A collage of photos from the World's Largest Pet Walk.

And in 2022, we launched our biggest and most exciting event to date: Pet Partners Pet of the Year, a fundraising competition for any pet of any species, and the people who love them. During this six-week fundraising event, candidates raise funds to support Pet Partners and our therapy animal teams; the candidate who raises the most funds is crowned Pet of the Year. We’ve had so many delightful candidates and creative fundraising and storytelling from them, and this event brings out both the joy and the competitiveness of the candidates, with all of it providing important financial support for our Therapy Animal Program.

Pet Partners Pet of the Year

I’ve enjoyed the opportunities to help promote these fun, joyous, creative events, and to see the ways in which they bring more awareness and support to Pet Partners and our therapy animals.

Profound and Special Moments

In the end, what has been most special for me as a staff member with Pet Partners has been the mission and our volunteers who make it possible. Seeing the joy, comfort, and health impacts brought by our therapy animal teams is always so powerful and meaningful to me. There have been so many times, far more than I could ever count, where hearing about a special moment one of our teams had with the people they visited or the impact a team had for a community has brought me to tears. This work is very special, building on the bonds we have with animals to create these meaningful moments and profound impacts. Spending nearly a decade helping to make this happen has meant a great deal to me, and I’m both proud and humbled at being part of and witness to this work.

A Cornish rex lies in the arms of a person on a hospital bed.
Pet Partners therapy cat Puntino comforts a client. This photo represents so many moments where our therapy animals made a difference for someone.

Everyone has times in their life where they need to make changes, and that is the case for me; I’ve reached a point where I have other goals and passions I want to pursue, and it happens to be that I need to leave Pet Partners to do that. But I will always be grateful for opportunities I’ve had and the work I’ve been able to do as part of this organization. And I’ll continue to find ways to support the organization and the mission—perhaps even becoming a therapy animal team with a pet someday. (As an example of the high standards of the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program, none of the pets I’ve had during my time with the organization has been suitable for therapy animal work, so I’ve never been able to pursue team registration.)

And I am so thankful for the thousands of dedicated volunteers who carry out this mission and create those special, profound moments with their pets. Thank you to every Pet Partners volunteer. I’m honored to have played a part in helping you do this work.

–Elisabeth Van Every