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Wings And Wheels: The Story of Tracy & Kate

Local airline pilot, mother, wife and pet parent ventures from the skies to nursing homes with her therapy dog Kate by her side

When Tracy Prior earned her flying license during her senior year at James Madison High School in 1979, it came as no surprise to her classmates because they knew her as a go-getter.

Tracy went on to become an airline pilot and, in 1986, a member of the first all-female crew for American Airlines, for whom she still works today.

But beyond her pilot life, Tracy is a mother, wife and devoted pet-parent. She lives in Vienna not far from me, and our paths cross from time to time as we are both out walking our dogs, biking or running.

Recently, Tracy mentioned she and Kate, her 5-year-old Golden Retriever/Black Lab, had completed their Therapy Dog training and would be venturing out to Fairfax area nursing homes on behalf of Fairfax Pets On Wheels (FPOW), an all-volunteer organization which connects pets (dogs, cats and rabbits) with people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. It provides companionship and an improved quality of life to Fairfax area residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities through regular pet visitation by trained volunteers and their approved pets.

I wanted to hear all about it, so we met up at the for coffee and chatting. She brought Kate with her, of course, as well as Ruth Benker, their trainer and director of FPOW Communication. Ruth has been with the FPOW for 19 years, and was clearly thrilled to welcome Tracy and Kate into the highly successful program, which has included up to 300 volunteers at any given time.

I was curious: What would drive a professional pilot to get involved in this endeavor? Tracy said it was simple: Kate wanted a job. She had been feeling a bit down, not very useful to her family, and rather listless according to a close family friend who understands dog behavior and communication. So, Tracy found the perfect job opportunity for Kate, a fun-loving, outgoing and friendly dog, as a therapy dog for FPOW. Once accepted into the program, the duo would be able to positively impact the lives of many right here in their own community. And having had her own grandmother and great-aunt spend the last years of their lives in a nursing home, Tracey felt it was especially important to give back. But both Tracy and Kate had to be able to pass muster after completing the rigorous training required by FPOW. According to Ruth Benker, there are five steps to qualify:

  1. Complete the online application with the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging.
  2. The handler must attend an orientation, held the first Wednesday of each month.
  3. The pet must complete a "temperament test," administered by professional handlers.
  4. The animal must be health certified by their own vet, verifying that it is free of diseases and up to date on all vaccinations.
  5. Complete an onsite orientation. FPOW contacts one of the facilities (you can choose which facility to visit) to arrange the onsite orientation.

I was particularly interested in the temperament test, which Ruth described as hands-on testing to determine the dog's noise sensitivity, the level of bonding/communication between handler and dog, interaction with other dogs, reaction to exposure to food without grabbing, reaction to wheelchairs and walkers. After the temperament test, you find out on the spot whether you passed. Tracy and Kate passed with flying colors, and were issued their official ID which must be worn on every visit to a facility.

Tracy pointed out that as a busy pilot, mother and wife, this particular opportunity provides her and Kate with the greatest flexibility. Her goal is to make two visits per month. She chooses the facility, day and time and confirms it with the nursing home. Kate apparently already has a faithful fan-base of residents at the Iliff Nursing and Rehab Center in Fairfax who look forward to her visits. Ruth noted there is a great need for many more volunteers like Tracy and Kate.

Last week, FPOW held its 16th annual Paws for a Cause 3K Walk in Fairfax to raise awareness and funds for the Fairfax Pets On Wheels Program. The event was highly successful, and Tracy and Kate were the top fundraisers!

On Oct. 22, FPOW will host a Pet Adoption Event open to the public at the Iliff Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Dunn Loring from noon until 4 p.m. The Friends of Homeless Animals, a Merrifield-based, nonprofit and no-kill shelter will be presenting a lineup of adorable, adoptable canines. Ruth, Tracy and Kate hope to see you there!

For more information on the FPOW program, contact dfspetsonwheels@fairfaxcounty.gov.

Robin Baxter October 13, 2011 at 03:40 PM
What a great program, and a wonderful way to brighten the day of facility-bound patients. Thanks for letting us know about it. And for letting us know their need for more participants!

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