Therapy Pigs Thunder and Bolt Are Happy to Trade Belly Scratches and Hugs for Smiles
Surrounded by strange sounds, smells and people, you never forget what makes you smile at a hospital.
For 11-year-old Claire Barrow, that was a therapy dog. At 2 years old, Claire was often in the hospital visiting her mother Heather Barrow, who spent two months on complete hospital bed rest after her water broke when she was just 24 weeks pregnant with Claire's brother Hill, now 8.
"During those months, the only time Claire was able to see me was during her short daily hospital visits. My husband Bennett also spent nights at the hospital, so the entire time was very difficult and scary for her," Heather told PEOPLE. "I was visited every Wednesday morning by a therapy dog in the hospital and we would plan Claire's visit on those days, during the time the therapy dog would be there. Claire's visits with the therapy dog made the hospital a fun place for her and cheered our entire family up during a time that was extremely difficult and stressful."
Through the years, those bright spots during her mom's frightening hospital stay stuck with Claire. Last year, during a family visit to the hopsital to provide support to other families with premature babies through High Risk Hope, Claire decided she was going to train a therapy animal of her own so she could continue to give back to others.
With two dogs too old for therapy work, the Barrow family looked at other options.
"My husband Bennett had a pig growing up so we have always said we would adopt a pig one day, so the idea of therapy pigs got into her mind. Claire would not let it go, even drafting a pig contract video where she swore she would care for, train and love the pigs," her mom said.
Persistent and armed with plenty of research, Claire eventually wore her parents down and the Barrows adopted two potbelly pig brothers in May and named them Thunder and Bolt. Claire channeled that same can-do attitude into training the pigs for therapy animal certification.
"Claire has worked tirelessly with Thunder and Bolt every day, to socialize and train them to visit with and brighten the day of families facing difficult times, like our family did in 2009," Heather explained proudly. "The therapy-training program for pigs is rigorous, and although pigs are smart, they can be very stubborn too. Claire's determination and patience has shown through in Thunder and Bolt's ability to follow her instructions while connecting and bonding with complete strangers, leaving every single person they meet smiling."
In November, both Thunder and Bolt, who are 10 months old, became certified therapy pigs. They immediately went to work spreading smiles at nursing homes, schools and Tampa General Hospital — where the pets are the hospital's first therapy pigs, and Claire their first youth volunteer.
"The kids come out and run straight to the pigs. I recognized some of the kids from previous visits. The doctors and nurses love them, too. They always go out of their way to come down. It means a lot for us," Claire said of the bimonthly hospital visits. "They do more emotional therapy. Even [when] the kids are sick, the pigs always cheer them up. The kids love petting the pigs and the pigs love belly rubs."
"In the hospital, Claire watches the kids, and I watch the parents," Heather added. "I know what it is like to have one sick baby and one baby who misses her family while her parents are staying at the hospital."
On their visits, the trio, along with the rest of the Barrow family, educate others about pigs and help lower stress-levels by passing out back scratchers. Thunder and Bolt both appreciate a good belly rub, and are happy to wheel into a place of need on their wagon to accept the attention and scratches of their adoring public. The pair are able to connect easily with anyone, whether it be a one-year-old or a 90-year-old.
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"I have loved the whole process so much that when I grow up I want to do the same thing," said Claire, who along with teaching them good manners has also taught Thunder and Bolt basic dog commands (sit, stay, come) and how to feel comfortable walking on a leash and being around crowds.
At home, Thunder and Bolt love to spend their days lazing by the pool, posing for photos for their popular Instagram page and goofing off. They can often be found giving their family members "snout boops" with their perfectly pink noses or going into a "pig coma" any time they get a belly scratch for more than 10 seconds.
Through their laid-back, loving personalities, Thunder and Bolt are teaching the Barrows a few things too.
"You are never too small to make a big difference in someone else's life," Heather said of what she has learned from watching her pet pigs. "Whether you are a miniature potbelly pig or an 11 year old, you can figure out what your charitable gift is and brighten the day of someone else."