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Assistance Animals Lend Helping Paws

Article Highlights

  • Therapy animals offer comfort and emotional support at hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, schools, and other facilities.
  • Animal-assisted therapy may help patients with tasks such as regaining motion in limbs, fine motor control, or regaining skills for caring for pets at home.

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Lifting people’s spirits is part of Casey’s job.

Part dachshund, part American pit bull terrier, Casey is a therapy dog who can often be found walking hospital corridors and visiting pediatric patients with physician assistant Natasha Berkley. Some of the kids pat and play with Casey, while others just want to say hi to her. All receive a bit of cheer from her.

“I have seen Casey bring joy to children when they are having a bad day or received bad news,” says Berkley, a graduate of the Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program at South University, Savannah. “Parents often have me come in because their kids have had a hard week and they know the visit will make them smile.”

Therapy pets like Casey offer comfort and emotional support to people at hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, schools, and other facilities. These pets must be calm, reliable, and well-tempered. They are trained to interact with multiple people and remain obedient in a variety of situations.

Therapy dogs are trained and certified by Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization that regulates, tests, and registers therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers. As of 2011, approximately 24,000 dog/handler teams were registered with Therapy Dogs International. To belong to the organization, dogs must be tested and evaluated by a certified Therapy Dogs International evaluator. A dog must be at least one year of age and must pass a temperament evaluation, which includes the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen® test.

“Part of the test to become a therapy dog is that they must not respond negatively to loud sounds or to medical equipment and they must be calm around all ages,” explains Berkley, who recently joined Therapy Dogs International as Casey’s handler. “They have to be taught to sit, lie down, and stay while the handler walks 10 feet away. They must stay until the handler calls them.”

Dogs also have to pass a separation test where the handler leaves the room for three minutes and the dog must remain calm, Berkley adds.

A therapy dog must work well with his or her handler who is often, but not always, the dog’s owner. To become a therapy team, both handler and dog must complete training. Then, they can begin visiting facilities that allow therapy pets to visit.

“We first meet many of the hospital staff and they greet Casey,” Berkley says of her hospital visits with Casey. “Then we go from room to room making sure that the children would like to see her. Sometimes we will only spend three to five minutes in a room just so they can say hi and pet her. Other times, I have spent an hour in one room while the child and I talk and he or she plays with Casey.”

Therapy animals can really help out in grueling therapy sessions.

Assistance animals are typically put into a couple different categories — therapy pets and service animals. Animals of almost any kind can become assistance animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and horses.

“We call a medical professional who visits patients with a pet, animal-assisted therapy,” says Bill Kueser, vice president of Marketing at PetPartners, formerly the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization that trains and screens therapy, service, and companion animals and their owners. “For example in occupational therapy, an animal will be incorporated to provide variety and motivation to people undergoing therapy. This could mean incorporating the animal in exercise.”

Animal-assisted therapy is a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment. These therapy pets assist medical professionals in meeting goals important to a person’s recovery. They can help motivate patients in their therapy or treatment.

Therapy pets may help patients with tasks such as regaining motion in limbs, fine motor control, or regaining skills for caring for pets at home.

“People are reported to be more motivated to complete therapy and report less pain,” Kueser says. “Therapy animals can really help out in grueling therapy sessions.”

Research indicates there are several physical and mental health benefits that come from spending time with pets. A study out of the University of Missouri found that a few minutes of stroking a pet dog increases feel-good hormones prolactin and serotonin. Thus, animal-assisted therapy can improve self-esteem, reduce anxiety, and facilitate healing.

“I see a lot more interest on the part of medical professionals and mental health professionals to incorporate pets into their therapy,” Kueser says. “Pet therapy is even of growing interest to those who provide massage and acupuncture therapy and alternative medicine. People have really started to catch on to the benefits of having a pet in their lives.”

Author: Darice Britt

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