Six-year-old Maximo Villanueva smiled and jumped in front of a banner that read, “I got my vaccine shot” at the community vaccination clinic at Valley View Mall.
Minutes before, he had been sitting in a chair next to his mom receiving his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. He was scared and nervous, but now, he crouched down and smiled as he posed with a 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Jax.
“On the count of three, everyone say, ‘dog,’” Maximo said. “One, two, three, dog!”
Jax and his handler Bob Villamil are part of a pet therapy organization called TheraPets of the Roanoke Valley. They have been volunteering at the vaccination clinic since December to help children and adults who are anxious about receiving their COVID-19 vaccines.
Villamil said the organization has put on 40 pet therapy clinics at the center. The last day for pet therapy is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The vaccination center will close March 5, but residents will still be able to receive free vaccines at pharmacies and local health district offices.
Maximo’s mom, Marcia Craft, said her son seemed scared of the needle, but those feelings dissipated once he met Jax.
Craft said they came to get vaccinated Friday because Roanoke schools were closed for the day. She didn’t know the therapy dog would be at the clinic, but said she was so thankful because the visit became a treat for her son.
“I appreciate the organization being here,” Craft said. “It’s been a great experience and I’m grateful they’ve used this building for something to help the community.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 and up in November. Soon after, the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts reached out to TheraPets to provide therapy dogs for kids receiving the vaccine.
Health district communications officer Christie Wills said the program has been an incredible success for kids and adults alike.
“Research has shown that people who have an aversion to needles or who are nervous in a health care setting, can come to a pet therapy clinic and they have lower blood pressure and it helps you relax,” Wills said. “Children particularly benefit from being in a clinic with pets available.”
Villamil trained Jax as a puppy to become a service dog for people with disabilities. However, Jax did not make it through the program and came back to live with the Villamil family in Salem.
By the time Jax turned 2, he had been trained as a therapy dog and started going to events at hospitals, elementary schools, universities and nursing homes as part of TheraPets.
Villamil said therapy dogs have to be friendly and comfortable being approached by many different people. Unlike service dogs who can’t be approached by the public, therapy dogs are meant to be petted and comfort those around them.
He said the program is perfect for a place like the vaccination clinic, where people are stressed. The pandemic has heightened anxiety and mental health issues, so everyone can benefit from a therapy dog being present.
“COVID was very tough on everybody and adults had to deal with a lot of stuff in addition to getting their shot,” Villamil said. “It’s very unusual to see a dog in a setting like this, so they’re always pretty pleased.”
TheraPets hopes to continue working with the local health district as vaccinations move to individual health department offices. Villamil said the organization is also receiving a lot of requests from nursing homes and retirement communities, many of which go unfilled because the organization does not have enough handlers or dogs.
Villamil said the group is always looking for more therapy dogs. Those interested can visit TheraPetsoftheroanokevalley.com to learn more about volunteering.
“We go where we’re needed to offer comfort and love to people,” Villamil said. “It’s pure joy. What my therapy dog Jax does is distract them from whatever’s going on in their lives at the time. They just forget all that when they start petting him.”
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