Alumni Spotlight: Heather Gainey

heather and brody

“I wanted a degree that allowed me the opportunity to work in a variety of settings. Family and Child Sciences was a great fit. I didn’t know what doors would open or where I would end up, I just knew it would give me a great foundation.”

Early on, Heather Gainey (B.S. ’12, M.S. ’13) knew Florida State University was the right fit for her. She is a two-time graduate of the Family & Child Sciences department, and is currently the Program Coordinator of Animal Therapy at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.

We were excited to chat with Heather about her experiences after FSU and are excited to bring you some of her story.

Was animal therapy an area you were interested in pursuing early on?

Yes! My entire family is in the medical field from Pediatric Allergist, to Anesthesiologist, to Director of Medical Records, to initial implementation of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), so I was exposed to the heath care field at a young age. I have also always been an animal lover. I grew up riding horses since the age of 2. When choosing a university, FSU was a no brainer because of the equine and dog friendly community. So, after graduating high school, my horses (Mahan Farm) and I moved to Tallahassee and have been here ever since! It was the perfect fit, brining my love of animals and their healing power to a health care setting as a career option!

I even wrangled my barn manager into getting her dwarf miniature horse Snuggles involved with the program (she is somewhat of a local celebrity). Snuggles is the second smallest horse in the world! Snuggles make visits across the community, but their best work is done at TMH Rehabilitation Center. Snuggles even goes inside to visit patients in their rooms!

What drove you to major in family and child sciences?

I really liked working with people. I wanted to be a do-er… a go-getter… someone on the ground floor making a difference. I wanted a degree that allowed me the opportunity to work in a variety of settings. Family and child sciences was a great fit. I didn’t know what doors would open or where I would end up, I just knew it would give me a great foundation and understanding of individuals and their complexities.

[On her decision to stay for the Master’s program] Truthfully, I loved FSU and was not ready to leave! One of my undergraduate professors encouraged me to apply and am so glad for the path is has led to. Since grad school, I have worked on research and helped submit studies that utilize Animal Assisted Therapy. The graduate program gave me the tools to contribute to the field. (Holy moly, how cool is that?!)

If there is one thing you could share with current majors, what would it be?

Say YES to every opportunity that comes your way! You never know what doors will open, connections that’ll be made, and wonderful people you will meet.

What is your greatest motivation?

My pets. They are such incredible beings that provide unconditional love. I am so lucky they are a part of my life, both personally and professionally. Forever grateful.

What is one of the most rewarding parts of your job?

Bringing joy to patients, families and medical staff in their time of need. To brighten someone’s day with a wagging tail never gets old! It’s super fun (as an alumnus) to be so active on FSU’s campus helping students destress before midterms and finals with the therapy animals.

I also enjoy educating others on the benefits and hard science behind animal therapy. When an individual is in the presence of an animal their blood pressure lowers, heart rate lowers, cortisol (a stress hormone) is reduced, oxytocin (the feeling of love and connection) is released, as well as endorphins which are natural pain killers.

In the last decade, scientific evidence has proven how impactful Animal Therapy can be, both physiologically and psychologically. Alternative medicines (such as animal assisted therapy, medical musical therapy and art therapy) are becoming common practice in the medical setting. It truly is a great time to be in the field and I am honored to be a part of TMH and the animal therapy that is setting the standard for best practices.

About TMH Animal Therapy:

The Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy Program is the only one of its kind in the Big Bend and has been fostering the therapeutic bond between people and animals since 1895. The handler-animal teams provide mental health, motivational, recreational, education, rehabilitation, pain management and other therapeutic services to a wide variety of facilities throughout the Big Bend Region. The program currently has over 170 teams, serving 60 facilities.

For more info information on services, or if you would like to volunteer, please visit the website at or you can call Heather directly at 850-431-5352.