More Than Just an Animal: Pets Help the Heart Heal
Over the years, myriad studies have proven that animals have positive effects on people’s lives: Aside from the companionship, simply owning a pet can help reduce stress, increase physical activity, boost immunity, and improve cardiovascular health, among other physical and mental benefits.
For Dr. Stephanie Jones, the heart health benefits are paramount. She’s seen the profound impact of animal interaction among children and firmly believes that pets really can make the heart healthier. Not only physically, but—perhaps even more powerfully—emotionally as well.
As founder of the Florida-based Pets Help the Heart Heal, Dr. Jones has made it her life’s mission to uplift, educate, and inspire both children and adults through the power of the human-animal bond. And inspire she has!
In this episode, Dr. Jones shares her story: What prompted her to establish Pets Help the Heart Heal, why it’s so important to her, and how its mission is spreading across the country—and, more importantly, how you, too, can make a difference in a child’s life.
Founder of Pets Help the Heart Heal, Dr. Jones specializes in reproductive medicine and soft tissue surgery at the Animal Hospital of Ft. Lauderdale. She is a 1999 graduate of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
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Mia Cunningham: Welcome to the Fully Vetted podcast. My name is Mia Cunningham and I’m joined today by Dr. Stephanie Jones, co-owner of the Animal Hospital of Fort Lauderdale and founder of Pets Help the Heart Heal. Welcome to the show, Dr. Jones.
Stephanie Jones: Thank you so much for having me, Mia. I’m excited to be here.
MC: Well, thank you for making the time. We appreciate it. The reason we wanted to have you on is because we wanted to learn more about your amazing work with Pets Help the Heart Heal. But before we kind of jump into that, if you wouldn’t mind, would you share with our listening audience a bit about your background and journey in veterinary medicine?
SJ: Yes, I like to call myself the Arkansas Aggie Gator vet. So I am originally from Arkansas, population 25,000 people. We had like one Walmart. That’s pretty much it; a very small town. And I just knew that I wanted to be a veterinarian at about age 10. And at that time, I remember at some point we had to do a career exploration. I already knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. And I told my teacher and she took me to a vaccine in the park day. And that’s where it all started. And after that, one investment in me, I knew that I wanted to do that.
Thought I was going to the Ohio State, was so excited. And then things happened and my dad was like, no, we need to go where the money is. So I went to Texas A & M for undergrad and got my bachelor’s in animal science. Then I got in to University of Florida vet school, had a great time, met some amazing friends I’m friends with now. And then I ended up here in Florida, and I’ve been here for 23 years.
MC: Wow. Are you a practice owner there?
SJ: Yes, I am. I’ve been with this practice for two of my 23 years, and they offered me a portion of the practice, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
MC: And here you be. Well, tell us about your “aha!” moment that inspired the creation of Pets Help the Heart Heal.
SJ: I love this story. I always say it began with a smile, and it was a very unique situation. My sorority, I’m a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and it was the Martin Luther King Day celebration, and we always do something for the community. And interestingly enough, I was supposed to be at a parade, but it was cold here in South Florida, which was like 50 degrees. That’s cold for us, and it was very shocking. And so my friend and I, we didn’t really want to go out in the cold, so we ended up at a foster care organization doing a community project.
I found myself in the art therapy section. The assignment was to draw or write about the challenges that you face and draw a picture of how you overcome them. And so I was just walking around and observing, and I just was overwhelmed by the words that were written on the canvas—bullying, judgment, grief, those types of things. And so everybody was doing their work, and there was one little girl that just kind of was in her quiet space, no expression. I wanted to engage the girl, and I didn’t really know how. And I mentioned that I was a veterinarian, and that kickstarted everything. Conversations about pets, about what it is to be a veterinarian. And then I looked at the girl, and I said, “If I brought my dog, would you play with him?” And that one phrase got me a smile, and that was it. And I was like, if just the idea of having a dog come can put a smile on a child’s face, can you imagine what just exposing them to more animals and more pets can do? And that’s how it all started.
MC: So what specifically is Pets Help the heart Heal? What type of work do you all do?
SJ: Our mission is to improve the social, physical, and emotional health of youth through the human animal bond. And just by that encounter, I was like, well, what can we do? We saw in the paper what all the challenges that they were facing. I know the benefits, being a veterinarian, of pets and how they bring so much joy. My own personal pet, when I’m having a stressful day, I come home and I sit on the couch, and he just comes and puts his head in my lap and I just pet him. And what we all experience is that those stresses go away, even if it’s just for a short moment. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted to provide a moment in time where they could cast their cares away. And so that’s what we do.
We provide opportunities for youth in underserved and underprivileged communities primarily to see and experience—everything is about experience—the benefits of the human-animal bond. So we created at my hospital, we created a shadow program. I have a biannual Life of Pets and Junior Vets program, where kids can come in and see a day in the life of a veterinarian. And that’s what we decided to do was take it to a whole other level. It was like, yes, let’s show them the benefits of the human-animal bond.
And my other thing is, what if someone invests in a child just like my teacher invested in me and showcase careers in animal industry? Because my thing is that I’m not sure what your destiny is, but if you haven’t been exposed to know what your destiny is, how do you know when you get there? And so if I can provide that opportunity for youth in all walks of life to be like, “What about veterinary medicine? What about careers in animal industry?” Not everybody is meant to be a veterinarian, but what if? And then, not only can we help decrease the stresses and trauma that they’re experiencing by that benefit of the human-animal bond, but you are putting them in a place or even planting a seed of “I can be in this place where I can have a pet around me and still thrive in society and the community.” And that’s what we’re about.
MC: So what kind of response have you seen in the children who participated in the program to this point?
SJ: Oh, my gosh, I’ve seen kids come in and they go through the shadow program, and then they decide that they want to try to be a certified vet tech. And that just recently happened. One young lady, she hung out with us for probably about a year. And when she graduated from high school, she applied to vet tech school. And so that was exciting.
I love when the kids come, especially teenagers, and they’re with their shoulders slumped and their arms folded and they’re looking like, “Why are we here? You guys made us come.” And if you could just see how those barriers are peeled away. By the end of the day, they’re down on the ground with the pets that are there, and their overall outlook has changed. And that’s amazing.
I’ve had shadow students that have taken what they’ve learned and then got a job in an animal hospital. One girl, she couldn’t come to our hospital anymore, but she took all that information that she soaked up like a sponge and used that to her advantage. And she got a job closer to her house. And I celebrate those victories with them. I was not upset that she couldn’t come anymore. I want to celebrate what they’re accomplishing now.
MC: I’m imagining that word is kind of getting out in the community about what you’re doing. What kind of support or maybe even interest have you had from the community and being a part of Pets Help the Heart Heal?
SJ: I think that this initiative is uniting the community. It’s uniting our clients when we share what we’re doing. Back when we were open on Saturdays and we had to close a little bit early so we could start prepping, and they would ask, “What are you doing?” And we explain it and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, how can I be a part of that?”
The community is getting involved. I’m establishing more partnerships. Foster care organizations are understanding and knowing where we are and even the veterinary community as a whole. I’m President of the Broward County Veterinary Medical Association. So even that platform is out there to let people know and let veterinarians know and letting veterinary staff know that you can be a part of this and get involved as well. And then just continuing to spread the word, spreading the word, even in the school systems. They’re like, “Can you come here, or can we come to you?” We’ve got great things in the works for that. So it is so exciting. My staff, in terms of the community, they even got on board with it. And it’s just so fulfilling and rewarding to do your part in any way that you can.
MC: You mentioned your staff. What kind of impact has this had on them, in terms of just being involved and the work-life balance as it relates to having them a part of this initiative?
SJ: So right after the “aha!” moment, I came back and it was the next day and I was still on cloud nine. Really, because I thought I was going to take the career day because I do career days, right? I was going to take it back over there. And I started just talking and I’m still animated as I was talking to my staff, and one of my client service representatives was like, “Doctor Jones, we should bring them here.” And that’s all she had to say. And we took it and ran with it. And everybody just hearing the story, hearing how this one girl smiled, they were like, “How can I be a part? How can I help?”
That was 2019, before COVID, but everybody kind of gets in their rut. I see that. I think that’s what even led me to branch out and do this. It was all go to work, come home, go to church, go to work. It was just a repetition, and it was getting stagnant. Work was trying to burn you out. And I feel like my staff was feeling the same way.
It’s such a rewarding thing to give and to give back. And sometimes people don’t even realize it or know how fulfilling it can be. And when I tell you for that very first event, I want to say I had 90% staff participation and the only staff members that didn’t come were out of town. That’s epic for all of them, even if they just did it the one time. Some of them took it and ran with it and still participate; some do not. And that’s okay. Even to hear them talk about it and to share the story. And how great is it when they have their T-shirt on after the event and they’re in the grocery store and people are like, “What is this?” And it just kickstarts a conversation.
That has been so rewarding. And each new staff member that comes in, we share it. And I don’t even have to share the story. The other staff members share the story. They’re like, “You should come, you should participate!” And that’s amazing in and of itself.
Krysten Bennett: You said that you started the organization in 2019 right before COVID hit. Did you even have a chance to get it going before you basically had to rethink everything?
SJ: No, we were just like dipping our toe, right? I was researching what foster care organizations were doing that meet and greet. But let me tell you how things went: So we were doing that, but I did more and got better connections when the lockdown came. Because you think it’s all here, right? I thought it was all right here in Ft. Lauderdale. But experiences like this, the networking, just opportunities to share the story in a bigger space—that has been so beneficial for us. And that’s where you’re like, don’t stay closed minded. The sky’s the limit for anybody and anything that you do, especially now. So it gave us an opportunity to make more strategic connections.
MC: Given that you’re a practice owner, you’ve got a lot of responsibilities there, and you’re the founder of this great organization. How do you balance everything?
SJ: I basically outline it. Doors are opening, things are changing. COVID is awful, and the things that we’re experiencing. But just like with everyone who’s creating new careers and things, I’ve taken that and I’ve outlined spaces for me. So I take the good with the bad, right?
So unfortunately, due to staff shortage and things like that, we’ve been closed on the weekend since COVID, but we are still making it work. And we’re still providing services to our clients, but now I get to use that extra space for me, for my community outreach. I call it Make It Happen Wednesdays. I’m off on my day off. I’m off, but I’m not off. And I’m making it happen in the community. And people say, “Oh, my God, you’re so busy. You’re doing so much.” But at the end of the day, if it brings you reward and fulfillment and joy, that’s okay. When it becomes too much of a stress for you, that that’s not okay. But this gives me joy. If I took my blood pressure, it would probably be better right now than other times, and that’s what it’s all about. So what brings you joy is what helps you stay balanced.
MC: Awesome. Well, I wanted to take a step back because you mentioned this earlier, but I’d love for you to tell us more about Life of Pets and Junior Vets.
SJ: Practices will do hospital tours and things like that, but we wanted to make it an experience and engagement. So Life of Pets and Junior Vets is a day where we’ve closed the hospital, or we’ll do it after hours. The kids will come, and they are dressing up and experiencing a day in the life of a veterinarian. So depending on how many exam rooms we have, each room is educational—because I do feel like I’m a teacher. I feel like it’s in my blood. I’m a teacher at heart. I was going to be like, “Oh, just come and play with the pets.” But then I’m like, “No, I need you all to learn something as well.”
So the rooms kind of tell the story of the day in the life. So it goes from starting with a physical exam and then testing and reading X-rays and then going to surgery. We partner with a pet therapy organization, so they get to learn about the different breeds. We do arts and crafts afterwards, and then at the end, once again, it’s like, “Well, what did you learn? How are you feeling before you got here?” Because remember, we’re dealing with youth in foster care or we’re dealing with underserved areas. So it’s like, “Are you mad that you’re here? Okay, that’s fine. That’s okay. Share that.” And then afterwards, when you’ve got a dog licking your face: “Are you still mad?” That’s what we want to know. Did we do our part? Then it’s a matter of them saying, “Hey, how do I learn more? Can I be a part of your shadow program?”
So that’s Life of Pets and Junior Vets. I let the staff kind of help me create it. It is engaging, it is educational, it is entertaining. It’s just amazing. We’re capturing moments, and that’s amazing. We do that twice a year. We do private engagement. We’ve had organizations reach out and say, “Hey, can you do one for us?” because we’re still trying to be mindful of COVID and everything. And so those are the educational, engaging, informative. Educate, uplift, and inspire—that’s our core values.
MC: So one of the ways that I became familiar with you was through, as I mentioned, we talked previously, Dr. Mia Cary. And then I also follow you on Instagram where I learned about reading with pets. So is that an initiative that you guys are still sponsoring? And if so, what does that look like for you now?
SJ: Absolutely. So before COVID, I was going to the foster care organizations, me and Max. It’s called Max and Me Adventures. Where are we going today? He never knows. And so we were getting out there, and we were reading once a month. And then COVID hit, and everything was shut down. And I was like, oh, my gosh, I missed the kids. I missed being out there, but also everybody’s in the house, and they’re dealing with their own challenges and stressors. And so it’s like, “Okay, how do I keep the learning going? How do I keep the human-animal bond experience going?”
So we created a virtual reading with pets across the nation. And I just started calling elementary school friends, college friends, high school friends. I just started calling everybody and said, “Hey, do you have a pet?” or “Do you have a child? Do they want to read with a pet?” So the goal was to have a child in one location read to a pet in another location, and the pet could be anything. And that’s what I loved also because they never knew what pet they would be reading to. One of my past colleagues, she moved and bought a farm. And so when the little kid looked up, it was a cow. And so she was reading to a cow. She had no idea. And that’s amazing. We just had a little girl who was a repeat reader, and she thought she was reading to a dog, and it was a horse. And she was ecstatic.
And so our goal was, I just wanted all 50 States. I was like, during COVID, if I can just hit all 50 states, whether it’s a pet, whether it’s a child, that was our goal. I started promoting through social media. And we ended up in Trinidad. We ended up in Canada. We ended up with one of my classmates in Italy. So we’re still going globally. And once again, the objective is still to hit the 50 states. So if anyone out there, we’ll be happy to share with you what states are still needed, so that we can accomplish our goal.
Now as things are opening back up and we’re getting back into the school system, I am trying to create a reading circle with different backdrops. Our hashtag is #10MinutesaDay. And the kids can come and they can read and they can just pick whatever story they want to read. I’m not trying to make you read a novel, because I know you’re not going to do that; I just want you to find creative ways to read. And what better way than a non-judgmental, unconditional platform to read to a pet and practice?
So it’s great because each child will meet in Zoom, and then we go to Facebook live. These are kids. I totally get it. And understand those are where parents are approving it. I don’t really get to do too much with the foster kids. That’s why I’m ready to get back to work here in person and be able to do that half the time I start reading, and then they’re like, it’s not even about me. They grab a book, and they’re reading to Max, and I’m like, “Do your thing. Whatever makes you happy in that space is what I’m here to accomplish.” And if it’s not about me, and I’m over here talking to the parents, the foster parents, or the director, and Max is right there on the ground, ready to hear a book.
KB: Who is this Max you speak of? Could it be the Sir Barrington Maximus I was reading about on your website?
SJ: It is! He’s actually asleep right here on the floor. Oh, he turned. He looked at me. He’s like, “Are we working?”
KB: Can you tell us about him?
SJ: He just turned seven. So he’s a seven-year-old, rough-coated Collie. He is my third Collie. It’s my mother’s fault. She has always wanted a Collie, so we had a Collie from the beginning. My first Collie went to vet school with me. And ironically enough, every last one of them had been contributing, even if it was just me within the small space of career days, every last one of them have participated.
This breed is amazing. First of all, they’re super smart, and their temperament is amazing, and I so respect and appreciate him, and how he just knows. And he is also an affirmation that we’re headed in the right space. My one quick example is when we were at a career day. I let him go, and he went to this kid, and the little boy said, “Does he sense depression?” I almost cried, and Max just loved on him. And then he went to one other girl who had just transferred from overseas. He went to two separate people on his own. We have work to do, and he knows it, and he’s so good with kids.
KB: Wow. That’s amazing. Max obviously has a therapy dog in his blood, but does he have the official certification yet?
SJ: I actually just got a message from his trainer, and I was like, “I need that certification, so we can continue to do work!” So he’s going to get that within the next two weeks before our next Life of Pets and Junior Vets. He’ll pass. I know he will. It’s just once again carving out the time.
MC: So, 10 minutes a day is not a big ask. How can our listeners get involved? Like, where can they go to sign up to either volunteer or have a little one read to?
SJ: We have a Facebook page, Pets Help the Heart Heal. We have Instagram, Pets Help the Heart Heal. You can always direct message us that way. Or you could even email us at [email protected]. And then my assistant will get you on the list. And it’s the first Saturday of each month at 12 p.m., eastern standard time. And so then that’s it. And you just pick which month you want to participate, and we will be happy to make that work for you.
MC: What’s in store for the future of Pets Help the Heart Heal?
SJ: Oh, my gosh. I have big dreams, big aspirations, and my biggest thing is I want Pets Help the Heart Heal to be global. I want veterinarians that want this part of giving back. Some people want to work with accessible care. Totally get it. So this is my space. And if there are any other like-minded veterinarians that want that opportunity, how do we do that? Our mission is to be a conduit. So once we are out there and people know about us, then foster care organizations are like, “Hey, is there anything like that in Ohio?” And so then we’re just kind of collecting all of that. And then we would help with the training and the tools and the resources, and that way they can have their own Life of Pets and Junior Vets there. The pet therapy organizations that are local. Hey, sign up through us. We’ll make the connections for you. That’s the vision. And then we would be headquarters. I want it to be almost like a reward system.
In my head, I have this big building, this big facility. We can do a reading circle there. We can have an outdoor park. And let’s say you’ve had a child that’s done well at school, and they’re like, “I want to go to Pets at the Heart Heal and play with Max or whatever pet therapy animal is there. I want to go help walk Max.” And that’s the reward. And they come and hang out and they learn a little bit about vet medicine. That’s what I want. I want shadow programs to be offered in the hospitals, in veterinary hospitals. I want people to be able to tap in because there are so many opportunities out there. And we want kids to know that we’re here for them.
And then I want my mobile educational unit. I envision an educational mobile suite where if you have a smaller practice or are a foster care organization or nonprofit organizations, to be able to do a mini version of Life of Pets and Junior Vets. So that they can see the X-rays and they can see the surgery table and they can see a microscope and a stethoscope and some of the diagnostics. To be able to take that on the road would be awesome. So that’s also in the vision as well.
MC: It sounds like you’ve got some big things planned, and I can’t wait to see it all materialize. For our listeners who would like to donate in some way or learn more about what you guys are doing on a monthly basis, where can people go to either sign up for an email list or donate?
SJ: So we have a website and that is petshelptheheartheal.org, and social media. We have an Amazon Smile wishlist for those art supplies and things that we’re doing. We want to start to incorporate more STEM activities as well. So we are looking for that. We’re even looking for board members. We can do things virtually now, so if there is anyone out there who wants to be a part of this amazing movement and contribute their gifts and talents, we are happily welcoming that. Anything that we can do to just continue to spread the word.
MC: What kind of board members are you looking for? Do they have to be veterinarians?
SJ: No, I’m looking for anybody with a skill set. So right now I have on my board an HR person. My mom is grant writing. My sister is strategic planning. I have a pharmacist who’s a sorority sister who just loves the mission. So I’m looking for a vet student. I’m looking for an advisory board, anybody with nonprofit background, because at the end of the day, it is still new. Anybody with fundraising experience. That’s another big thing that we’ve been so blessed and fortunate that it’s not heavy overhead right now, but we still have work to do and things to do. So I have to plan for a fundraising event at some point, but all different aspects.
MC: Okay, so before I let you go, I’m going to go ahead and put this out there that maybe one or two people have been inspired by what they’ve heard today. And if they want to create an outreach opportunity within their community, what’s one piece of advice you would give them?
SJ: For me it was, you have the idea, right? What I encourage is to surround yourself with like-minded people who share that idea, so that you don’t get weary and you don’t lose your momentum. For me, I was fortunate enough to have that within my family. It was just meant to be. And so when you’re surrounding yourself with people that have their gifts and talents and you guys come together and make one initiative, that’s how that’s going to work for you and sit in silence. That’s my other favorite thing. Just sit in silence once that idea comes to you. Sit in silence, wait to receive, and then just start writing it all down. The map and the journey will outline itself.
MC: That is wonderful advice. We’re so excited to have you on. Thank you so much.
SJ: My pleasure. Anytime. Anytime.