FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Have you seen the latest "therapists" working in the medical clinics and the Warrior Transition Unit' They are outgoing, friendly and really love attention. No, these guys don't have high-level degrees but they are making a difference. They are the pet volunteers in the new Red Cross Pet Visitation Therapy program.

A visiting pet can temporarily provide the non-judgmental, uncomplicated warmth a patient needs. A visiting animal may also provide an opportunity for the patient to nurture, a role reversal for the patient who may feel he or she constantly needs the nurturing of others. Visits by pets may also open social avenues between patients, fostering laughter and communication. Scientific documentation shows that touch also plays an important part in healing and visiting furry animals love to be touched.

Research shows that pet visitation provides measurable effects on the health of hospitalized or seriously ill patients, including noticeable improvements in mental and physical well-being. Visiting pets often provide an emotional outlet to patients, lifting their moods, improving their spirits and giving them energy. This is especially important if you do not have family nearby. The animals may also serve as a bridge to encourage dialogue between the patient and his caregivers or visitors. When a person is hospitalized or ill far from home, the closeness of a treasured pet may be deeply missed.

Interested in getting a pet involved in Pet Visitation Therapy' Pets must be at least one year old, be spayed or neutered and must pass a careful evaluation for both good health and good behavior. Pets must have a very calm temperament, even when faced with unusual distractions.

The pet's obedience skills and its relationship with the pet owner are also evaluated. Only certified pets are invited to become volunteers, and both owners and pets wear the distinctive Red Cross vests when working.

Lew Jernign is the owner of two visiting pets, Molly, a Shih-Tzu, and Scooby, a Rottweiler.

"Molly and I have been doing this for eight years. I started this after my law enforcement career as a way to give back to the community," Jernign said. Scooby joined the duo three years ago, and they all regularly visit an Alzheimer's Center, a large nursing home and a variety of children's facilities. They even make some special visits to help children recover from traumatic encounters with animals.

"Visiting Moncrief is special for me because I am a former Navy medic, so I know how much we owe to the men and women of our armed forces who protect our freedom," Jernign said. "Most of the Soldiers we encounter tell me about their pets back home and how much they miss them. I am convinced that Molly and Scooby do God's work and I am just their driver."

Those interested in learning more about participation in a Pet Therapy Program, can contact the Red Cross office for additional information. The program requires owners and dogs to receive training and obtain certification prior to beginning visits. An initial evaluation of your pet can be arranged. Trained instructors will observe the handlers and dogs working together and evaluate their readiness for certification.

Call 751-4329 and the Red Cross staff can provide details on various volunteer opportunities.