I heard a man once say that the family dog was the best Christian in his household. A sign in my veterinarian’s office says, “Be the Person Your Dog Thinks You Are.”

No doubt about it, we are bound at the heart with our animal friends. A favorite service at my church each October is the Blessing of the Animals in honor of St. Francis Day.

So, it was no wonder that I was drawn to a program Jan. 30 at First Central Presbyterian Church, presented by Dr. Lisa Powell, assistant professor in the Department of Marriage and Family Studies at Abilene Christian University. Her program was on Animal Assisted Therapy or AAT as it’s known in the field.

And, of course, Powell brought her four-legged partner Luke, who is 13 and a certified therapy dog. Powell and her family adopted Luke in 2009 from the Waco Humane Society.

“We just fell in love,” Powell said.



Lisa Powell and Luke, her 13-year-old certified therapy dog, presented the program Jan. 30 at First Central Presbyterian Church. Powell is an assistant professor in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy at ACU. Luke helps relieve stress and tension in counseling sessions. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Luke’s favorite treat? Beggin’ Strips. And Powell’s favorite treat? Watching Luke do his thing with clients.

“Just having an animal in the room is so relaxing,” Powell said.

Luke is rather large and took up the entire back seat of Powell’s Mini Cooper on the trip from Waco to Abilene. No matter where he is, Luke fits in. Powell earned a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Southern Christian University in 2013. She wrote her dissertation on animal assisted therapy, asking the question about Luke, “Did he make a difference?” Powell got her answer one day when a client she was assisting began crying. Luke went to her and put his head in her lap so that she could pet him.

“That’s when I knew he helped,” Powell said.

Some of the benefits of animal assisted therapy that Powell listed were

  • Reduce stress
  • Lower anxiety
  • Humor
  • Better blood pressure readings

Animals also teach object lessons such as

  • Social interaction
  • Observation
  • Projecting behavior

Powell outlined the various types of animal assisted therapy:

  • Emotional support
  • Relieve stress in hospitals and doctors’ offices
  • Serve as a guide for the blind or deaf
  • Mobile assistant
  • Alert for people with seizures, diabetes, psychiatric issues, and allergies
  • Support for people with psychiatric issues such as autism

The types of animals that can become trained therapy assistants might be surprising. Most of us think of docile, huggable dogs like Luke. But the list is quite extensive–with a few surprises:

  • Llamas
  • Rats
  • Gerbils
  • Birds
  • Fish
  • Donkey
  • Sheep
  • Rabbits
  • Mini-horses

Anyone interested can contact Abilene Regional Medical Center or Hendrick Medical Center to inquire about training an animal to become certified in Animal Assisted Therapy. It’s not easy, and the animal has to undergo extensive training and testing. Warning: Not all animals qualify.


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