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Connecting people and pets by Cathy Cashio
Summer 2002      

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Watch the Video of Rusty's trick

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Animal-assisted therapy at UNT

Delta Society

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Larry McMurtry’s Dream Job

Fat in America

Denton Rocks!

Connecting People and Pets

photo of Cynthia Chandler and therapy pet Rusty
Cynthia Chandler (background) and therapy pet Rusty

Every Wednesday, Professor Cynthia Chandler brings her red and white cocker spaniel, Rusty, and white cat, Snowflake, to the Denton Juvenile Detention Center. As young men and women walk through high-security doors, Chandler’s pets are poised with toys to greet them.

At first, the expressions of the adolescents are lackluster and distant. That changes when Rusty and Snowflake go into action — Rusty licking, cuddling and barking and Snowflake leaping at a toy dangling from a string.

Laura Prillwitz, therapeutic program coordinator for the center, says when Chandler reinforces positive behavior in Rusty — praising him and patting his head — students see that a healthy response builds a healthy relationship.

“Because of Dr. Chandler and her pets, these youth have an opportunity to channel their energy into more responsible behavior,” says Prillwitz.

A few simple dog tricks, like a high-five or a game of fetch, can build trust in an adolescent. When Rusty and Snowflake are in a restful or cuddly mood, students learn about empathy. When a student has a reading problem or a speech difficulty, Rusty, under Chandler’s supervision, helps reduce stress and boost confidence. His unconditional love fosters self-esteem.

Pets as professionals

Chandler, UNT professor of counseling, had known the love of her own pets for years, but it wasn’t until she traveled to Europe and saw dogs accepted into public places that she thought about pets in the workplace.

When she returned to the United States, she brought Rusty to work with her while she saw patients and taught classes.

“With Rusty present, cuddling and comforting, my patients began to feel better faster and my students showed a greater interest in their courses,” she says.

She also noticed how quickly patients and students bonded with Rusty. The results of his influence inspired her to become a nationally certified pet partner and animal-assisted therapy instructor in 1999.

“Animals can help people by just visiting them,” Chandler says. “But animal-assisted therapy generally refers to a more formal treatment plan to help humans recover from emotional and physical illness.”

She and Rusty completed their training through the Delta Society, an organization that provides education in animal-assisted activities and therapy. They learned skills needed to visit safely in hospitals, nursing homes, classrooms and other facilities.

Pet therapy helps people feel less lonely and depressed, Chandler says, and just the presence of a pet can make people relax and “open up” to others. The unconditional love a pet provides — especially a certified animal-assisted therapy pet — can change a person’s life.

Rusty to the rescue

Chandler says one of Rusty’s most inspiring interventions at the Denton Juvenile Detention Center occurred with a troubled teen who refused to talk with her probation officer. Aware of Rusty’s reputation for healing, the officer asked if Rusty could come meet the girl.

“This meeting was the beginning of an incredible healing,” Chandler says.

“Rusty met her halfway at first and then moved closer. She went to the floor, hugged Rusty and began to cry as he leaned closer. Through chest-shaking sobs, she was able to open up emotionally to Rusty. When the probation officer returned, she was transformed.”

The girl’s healing is just one of Rusty’s victories. To honor the dog, the youth at the center placed a photo of him on their wall. Chandler hopes other pets will join this gallery one day. She has many hopes for the future of her pets.

Training humans

In 2001, she created an animal-assisted therapy course at UNT, and the program has expanded to include three community workshops a year.

“This new animal-assisted therapy curriculum should enhance the ranking of UNT’s counseling program,” says Michael Altekruse, chair of UNT’s Department of Counseling, Development and Higher Education. The counseling program has been rated in the top 20 in the country by U.S. News and World Report for the last five years and has twice received the outstanding program award for the United States from the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision.

Altekruse says animal-assisted therapy promises to be very helpful to different populations in the community, including the elderly, young people and people who are depressed.

The course and workshops are open to undergraduates and graduates of all majors as well as professionals and volunteers who wish to learn how to work with their pets as therapy partners. Professionals from various fields, such as teaching, counseling, social work, recreational therapy and psychology, benefit from the program by applying therapeutic techniques to their work, says Chandler, and trained volunteers can benefit the community by offering pet therapy in settings such as nursing homes.

Pawprints on the future

After reading about a successful program that uses dogs to help kids with reading difficulties, Chandler has a new project. She envisions a place where professionals and volunteers can be trained to work with their pets to help kindergarten through 12th-grade students with pet-assisted educational programs. Counseling students would also be exposed to this form of therapy, and people of all ages would benefit from the positive human-animal interactions.

Chandler looks forward to the day when Rusty and Snowflake are joined by many other pet partners to bark, lick and cuddle their way into the hearts of those who need them most.

For more information about animal-assisted therapy, call Chandler at (940) 565-2914 or send her e-mail at


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