“I have enjoyed every minute”: 17 years with Pet Partners

Ray WardRay Ward has been a Pet Partners handler since 2002 and a team evaluator since 2008. He has made countless therapy animal team visits over the years with his two registered Pet Partners, Mandy and Dakota, and helped evaluate dozens of therapy animal teams in central Ohio to make sure communities there could have safe and effective therapy animal visits. On June 6, 2019, after exactly 17 years of service with Pet Partners, Ray retired from the Therapy Animal Program due to some health issues. He shared some memories of his experiences as a Pet Partners volunteer.

When I retired from work I wanted to give back to the community. I always wanted to have a therapy dog so I thought that maybe that is what I should do. My wife and I volunteered at the Allen County Humane Society so we began looking for a puppy. In the meantime, I began by studying books on how to train dogs to become therapy dogs. One day we found a puppy that caught our interest. We took her home and called her Mandy. I started to train her on the basic commands.

I felt she was ready at three years old. I had already been searching the internet on what therapy group to go with. I thought Delta Society (now Pet Partners) was the best. I found out what I needed to do and I was ready to go. There were no evaluators near me so I received permission to have my vet evaluate us, which was something that Delta Society permitted at the time. He was tough but we passed with flying colors. Mandy and I became a Pet Partners team on June 6, 2002.

Now I needed a place to take Mandy. We started going to nursing homes and schools. I had her at the senior citizens center one day when I met a lady from the local hospital who said she would like Mandy and I to come to her hospital. Up to that point no dogs were allowed at either of our hospitals—Mandy and I were the first therapy animal team at a hospital in the area.

After a few years I realized that unless I became an evaluator, the program at the hospital couldn’t grow. I completed the training and became a team evaluator in November 2008. We soon had numerous dogs in the hospital program. Mandy and I won a Jefferson Award for starting the pet program at the hospital, and she also was featured in Prevention magazine for her actions when one of the women she saw every week at the cancer center requested to see her on her death bed.

We had to move to Columbus because my wife needed to be close to her heart doctors. We then revived the pet therapy program at the Columbus Riverside hospital. Unfortunately Mandy got bone cancer and we lost her shortly afterwards.

I wasn’t ready to quit so I looked into getting another dog. We went to Kentucky to a horse farm and found this beautiful plum-yellow lab puppy. You know how it is–they just seem to appear at the right time. Her name was Dakota.

I had Dakota trained in 18 months to become a therapy dog. I don’t know if she was smarter than Mandy or if I just knew now how to train dogs for therapy! We started visiting at Riverside Hospital again, but I was getting older and the 40-minute drive was getting to be a bit much, so I worked at getting us into our local hospital. Dakota and I made visits there for a while.

Unfortunately in 2017 I had a major stroke and I was left with expressive aphasia. I can no longer be the Pet Partner that I want to be, so I have had to retire from the program I loved so much.

In my 17 years with Delta Society/Pet Partners I have done many things, such as opening up two hospitals and three cancer centers to pet therapy. I was on a Delta Society committee. I made lots of calls answering people’s questions about the organization and therapy animals. I evaluated therapy animal teams. I visited schools, hospital groups, 4-H groups, Girl Scout groups, and church groups talking about AAI. Needless to say, I have enjoyed every minute of my time with Pet Partners.

We are profoundly grateful for Ray’s service, dedication, and enthusiasm as a Pet Partners volunteer these past 17 years, and we will miss having him as part of our Therapy Animal Program. Thank you, Ray, for all of your work in support of the human-animal bond!