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Stuart Pope

Assistant professor
School of Nursing

W. Stuart Pope was the pastor of a small church in Georgia when he sought a career change. He earned a bachelor's degree in nursing from Auburn University at Montgomery in 1988, then a master's in 2000 and a doctorate in 2009, both from Samford University. Prior to joining the faculty for the School of Nursing at Auburn University in 2009, Pope worked in psychiatric-mental health nursing for the State of Alabama in the Department of Mental Health. He also has experience in emergency and critical care nursing. Pope serves as the adviser for the Auburn Student Nurses Association and teaches psychiatric-mental health nursing. He can often be seen with any of his three four-legged friends. Aubie, a Shih Tzu, Miller, a golden lab, and Choa, a golden retriever-lab mix, are the stars of the school's Animal-Assisted Therapy program, run by Pope. In October, Pope was among the 50 alumni honored by Samford University's Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing with a Living Legacy Award.

1. What made you become a nurse?

Nursing was a second career for me. I had always had an interest in health care and a friend of mine was a nurse. I fell in love with nursing thanks to my first nursing professors. They were great role models. I knew from early in my nursing education that someday I would be a teacher.

2. Why do you teach psychiatric-mental health nursing?

I started my nursing career in critical care and emergency and noticed that because of the stigma attached to mental illness, patients with mental illness were not treated with the dignity they deserved and often were not given appropriate or adequate care. Teaching students about mental illness and teaching them to teach others is the best way I know to assure that every patient is treated with dignity, respect and has the care that they deserve.

3. Why did you start the Animal-Assisted Therapy program in the School of Nursing?

For me, it started several years ago when my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. When I would visit her in the nursing home, I would take my little Shih Tzu, Aubie, and the first thing my mother would always ask was, "Where is Aubie?" Aubie became a star with all the residents. Once, a son of one of the residents was watching his mother play with Aubie and she had this big smile on her face. He told me that it was the first time he had seen his mother smile in two years. Eventually I was approached by an Auburn alumnus who wanted to do something with animal-assisted therapy and the ideas started to flow. It would have been impossible to start the program in the School of Nursing without a dean that supports thinking outside of the box.

4. Who benefits more from spending time with Aubie, Miller or Choa - the patients or the students? Why?

Both benefit a great deal from Aubie, Miller and Choa. The patient's mood is lightened. The minute one of the dogs walks in the patients start smiling. The patients gain motivation. Many times patients will do things that are good for them because they are doing it for the dog, such as walking. The intangible benefit is being loved. The dog comes into the room, the patient smiles, the dog's tail starts wagging and he is content. The fact that the dogs love to visit with them just does so much for their mental state, which can influence a patient's recovery. Aubie, Miller and Choa also help children who have difficulty reading. The youngsters don't have difficulty reading to a dog because they are not embarrassed or intimidated by the animal. This also helps when talking to patients with behavioral issues. Many times they will talk more freely to the counselor when a dog is present. For Auburn nursing students, spending time with Aubie, Miller and Choa can decrease their stress level. Before and after tests, there may be 10 to 12 students playing with the dogs. They are not thinking about anything, but having fun. Nursing school is very stressful and the students need some time to relax, and the dogs provide a perfect opportunity for that. It is hard to find a downside to the program for patients or students!

5. How is the program growing?

Considering we started just two years ago with some ideas on a piece of paper, the program is growing great. Miller, who is nearly 3 years old, joined Aubie and me when she was just a puppy. Choa came along in the fall of 2011 when I went through a training program with Canine Assistants where Choa was trained to be a service dog for adults and children with physical disabilities or special needs. It was a life-changing experience for me. Since the beginning of our program, I have participated in training and registered with a number of animal-assisted therapy organizations. Approximately 15 of our students have used Aubie, Miller, Choa or their own dog to be trained to offer animal-assisted therapy. When I started thinking about where I wanted the program to be in five years, I wanted us to offer a pet-assisted therapy class for credit. One year after we started, we first offered the class for credit. Our next goal is to take the classroom program, which I now call Canines Assisting Rehabilitation and Education or CAREing Paws, into the community and train other dogs and their owners to offer therapy.

Jan. 22, 2013