When Rocky and MacKenna Pence see each other, you instantly know they are BFFs. Rocky’s ears perk up, and MacKenna’s eyes light up.
It’s a loving bond and a therapeutic relationship that started a year ago between Rocky, a quarter horse in his late teens, and MacKenna, a petite six-year-old who lives with a rare medical condition called Prader-Willi syndrome. PWS typically causes poor muscle tone, short stature, cognitive deficits, speech issues, and a chronic feeling of hunger. Rocky is helping MacKenna overcome many of those obstacles through weekly riding sessions.
“MacKenna, you want to brush Rocky?” asks Barb Ford. She’s a licensed clinical counselor and riding instructor who operates Untamed Spirit, a 12-acre adaptive, therapeutic riding farm and gardens in the Pungo area of southeastern Virginia Beach.
“Yes, brush Rocky,” answers MacKenna in her small voice.
MacKenna is dressed in her favorite riding attire, wearing leggings and a beige dress imprinted with miniature brown horses prancing across the fabric. She dons a protective riding helmet and begins brushing Rocky’s chocolate brown coat.
“A year ago, she couldn’t even hold the brush,” Barb says.
Children with PWS also feel a lot of anxiety, according to MacKenna’s mom, Ruth.
“Rocky calms her,” Ruth explains. “He is very soothing.”
Rocky is one of thousands of helpful and calming therapeutic/service animals in Hampton Roads. Without them, many people would be frightened, isolated, and forgotten. Here, we meet a few of those animals and their handlers and trainers who bring hope, sunshine, and assistance to the people who need it the most.
Overcoming Narcolepsy with a Service Animal
Shealynn Swartwood: “I’m a whole different person.”
In 2016, Shealynn Swartwood was a low- to average-grade high school student, mostly because she kept falling asleep in class.
In 2018, she graduated with honors, thanks to Paisley, her five-year-old golden retriever, aka her service dog.
“One day, I fell asleep driving to school,” says Shealynn, now 22. “I had sleep issues, and that was the final straw for my mom.”
Dr. Michael Strunc, a sleep specialist and neurologist at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, suspected Shealynn had narcolepsy, and tests confirmed it.
Medication to help her sleep through the night and Paisley’s assistance turned Shealynn’s life around. At night, she takes a medication to help her go to sleep and stay asleep—until Paisley wakes her in the middle of the night to take the required second dose. Another medication taken in the morning helps her stay awake. Paisley is also there to help ease the social anxiety Shealynn has experienced since she was three.
“I’m a whole different person,” says a happy Shealynn. “I was groggy and moody, and now I know what’s going on with me and I can work around it.”
After high school, Shealynn attended Thomas Nelson Community College, now known as Virginia Peninsula Community College, and Riverside Health System’s radiology/technology program.
“I graduated with honors at the top of my class, with Paisley as well,” she says proudly.
For now, Shealynn is a part-time radiology technician at Riverside. She’s cross-training into other imaging areas, hoping to land a position at an outpatient imaging center where she can take Paisley.
“I can’t imagine my life without Paisley,” Shealynn says.
Local Dogs Visit Hospitals and Cheer Up Patients
Certified by Therapy Dog International
When Kay Perkinson took Biscuit home eight years ago, she had no idea how much the golden retriever loves people.
“The dog just shines, just adores people, and that kept coming back to me,” she says.
At nine weeks, Kay enrolled Biscuit in puppy socialization classes at Playful Pups in Virginia Beach and soon realized the easy-going dog was meant to be around people, as much as possible.
“I didn’t get her thinking [she’d be a] therapy dog and really didn’t know that much about the work at that time,” Kay recalls.
Since certification at age 16 months through Therapy Dogs International, Biscuit and Kay have spent more than 300 hours cheering up little patients at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk. They also visit cancer patients waiting for treatments at the Sentara Brock Cancer Center, also home to Virginia Oncology, in Norfolk.
“When you take your dog into a room and a child smiles, it’s an amazing moment to watch the interaction,” says Kay, who is retired and lives in Chesapeake. She’s also president of the local chapter of Therapy Dogs International, which has about 30 members.
“In one room, the kids come to us, carrying their little IV poles with them,” she continues. “Biscuit will lay her head on their laps, and they pet her. They will tell me about animals they may have, and at that moment they are just normal kids, not thinking about the hospital.”
“Biscuit spreads sparkle and smiles wherever she goes,” Kay says.
In Norfolk Ann Story and Scout, her 5-year-old Havanese, have similar stories about smiles and hugs and warm feelings.
The retired nurse and Scout, who is 12 pounds of black-and-white cuteness, spend a couple hours two days a week visiting Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and Harbor’s Edge Senior Living in downtown Norfolk.
“He goes to everyone,” says Ann. “He’s not shy and never barks at anyone.”
At Sentara, Ann and Scout walk the behavioral health hallways with a recreational therapist and stop and chat with anyone who wants to say hello.
“Sometimes our best interactions are in the hallway,” says Ann, who is one of 11 pet therapy volunteers at the Norfolk hospital.
Other times, Ann and Scout visit the waiting rooms at the nearby Heart Hospital, where family and friends often spend long hours waiting for visitation times, especially when they live outside of our immediate area.
“Whether we see two people or 20 people, you feel like you have made someone’s day,” says Ann, smiling. “When I hear someone say ‘I can’t wait to see you next week,’ I know we are making a good difference.”
Therapeutic Riding Helps Local Girl with Prader-Willi Syndrome
Untamed Spirit Offers Equine Therapy to All Ages
About 56 percent of PWS children are non-verbal, according to MacKenna’s mother. MacKenna is defying those odds, in part thanks to her weekly visits with Rocky. She talks and sings to Rocky and practices the alphabet as she passes oversized letters hung on the walls of the barn where she rides.
Rocky also helps her develop and tone her muscles, especially her spine and core. A year ago, a weak spine meant MacKenna had to sit in a high chair in her classroom at Princess Anne Middle School in Virginia Beach. Today, riding has strengthened her core to the point she now sits in a regular chair with all the other kids.
“We showed her teachers a video of her riding and told them if she can’t fall off a horse, she can’t fall out of a chair,” says her proud mother. “She just wants to be like everyone else.”
At Untamed Spirit, Barb uses therapeutic riding for all types of health, emotional, and physical needs. Success is possible for all ages and abilities, she said. It may be a 70-year-old who has suffered a stroke and gets on top of a horse for the first time. Or, a child in a wheelchair who attempts to stand and pet a horse.
“The horses movement replicates that of a person,” Barb explains. “So, for someone who may not ambulate well or someone in a wheelchair, the rhythmic movement can enhance therapeutic sessions and stimulate core muscles while at the same time be fun.”
Sometimes, a horse can just stand there, quietly serving as a therapeutic “palette” for clients who want to visualize their emotions before talking about them. Clients in counseling sessions can use paint or chalk to draw their negative emotions/story on one side of the horse’s body, then a positive version on the other side. Then, they explain and discuss the story they’ve drawn on the horse, explains Barb.
“At the end of the session, they are able to ‘wash away’ the emotions and have a clean slate to begin another day,” she adds.
To do all this therapeutic work, Barb relies on grants, volunteers, and some paid staff. Donors can sponsor a particular horse or provide much-needed funds, in general, at untamedspirit.org.
“Combining both traditional in-office counseling and outdoor connections is how I truly believe people are meant to live,” says Barb. “I love being with our horses, gardening, and the outdoors and find that this gives a great connection to the earth and our world.”
In the indoor riding ring, Rocky and MacKenna cross over some colorful ground poles. It’s a mutually beneficial exercise for horse and rider. The horse exercises, lifting its legs up and down, while the rider strengthens core muscles as the horse’s footfall changes.
“For MacKenna, it helps her speech as she counts how many poles she and Rocky walk over,” notes Barb.
When MacKenna takes Rocky back to the stable, she brushes him again and says good-bye. Her timidity is gone. She sways her body from side to side and softly sings “I Just Want to Be Like You.”
“It’s a good day when she’s been with Rocky,” says her mom.