By Rebekah Wolf
Imagine spending the majority of the day lying in bed with chronic pain. Family members and friends come and go on occasion, but most of your interaction is with doctors and nurses. One day, a woman appears at the door with a beautiful Golden Retriever. They are there to spend time with you. For an hour, you visit with the woman and her dog, and you forget why you are in the hospital. You forget about the pain.
Organizations focusing on animal-assisted therapy are fueled by their volunteers’ compassion toward individuals in need of a break from their ailments, motivation to get out of bed, and even a nudge towards mental and physical growth.
“Mentally and emotionally, it’s a positive thing just to see and visit with a dog,” says Bill Dahlkamp, programs director for St. Louis-based Support Dogs, Inc. “It’s a break from their everyday routine. Sometimes we’re the only people they’ll see who won’t tell them what to do, like their doctors and nurses will.”
According to Dahlkamp, studies have shown that having dogs in healthcare facilities can lower the patient’s blood pressure and help them forget about their illness and why they’re there.
When Elan Winkler noticed her first dog Brittany’s affinity for children, she decided she had two options: have kids or go where the children were. She and her Border Collie/Pointer mix decided to get involved with animal-assisted therapy. They were drawn to Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services in San Jose, California, because the organization visits with both senior citizens and children, and the dogs are not required to be on a leash during visits with children.
By the second or third visit at Santa Clara County Juvenile Facility, Brittany had singled out a 10-year-old girl who was always by herself. She was suffering from low self esteem, and Brittany made her feel special.
“I told her, ‘Brittany thinks you’re special, so you must be.’ And her face lit up,” says Winkler. After that Winkler decided this was definitely worth their time.
The modern practice of animal-assisted therapy reaches as far back as the 18th century at a Quaker retreat for the mentally ill in England. Rather than use common psychiatric treatments for that time, which the Quakers viewed as harsh, patients communed with animals.
“Animals are very intuitive,” explains Winkler. “They instinctively understand what to do to get the individual to calm down and relax.”
People feel at ease around animals for a variety of reasons. They see animals as non-judgmental, they are soothing to touch because they are warm and soft, and they can conjure up memories of past pets, which is particularly helpful for those coping with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“With animals, there’s the acceptance that, ‘I don’t care who you are [or] what you are, I’m going to love you anyway,’” she says.
The movement really began to gain momentum in the late 20th century with the formation of organizations like the Portland-based Delta Society, which formed in 1977. Today, there are hundreds of 501(c)3 registered animal-assisted therapy organizations nationwide.
Animal-assisted therapy is not limited to visiting patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Animals are also integrated into physical therapy and are even invited into schools to help children with their reading skills.
Studies have shown that touching and visiting with animals can reduce stress, and animal companions are less likely to develop heart disease than those without pets. These pets are not limited to dogs and cats. In fact, Furry Friends incorporates animals from all walks of life, including a miniature horse, a llama, and an iguana.
“Any type of animal is appropriate,” says Winkler. “We have Chihuahuas, we have Great Danes, and we have everything in between.”
Organizations such as Avalon Hills Residential Eating Disorder Programs in Petersboro, Utah and Pathways Animal Assisted Therapy, Inc. in Baldwin City, Kansas incorporate horses into their programs to help with issues ranging from physical to behavioral disorders. Caring for and connecting with horses has shown to give people a sense of pride and trust and helps improve balance and coordination.
“For students with physical disabilities, the walking motion of the horse closely replicates how a person walks,” explains Bonnie Dingman, Pathways’ executive director and therapeutic riding instructor. “Students often demonstrate improvements in muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination. With greater freedom of movement comes an increase in self-esteem, confidence, personal mobility, and independence.”
With Support Dogs’ PAWS for Reading Program, dogs are brought into the classroom where students read to them, journal about them, as well as research different breeds, then present their reports to the dogs. They found that after two to three months, the students’ reading and comprehension levels went up, most likely because children view dogs as non-threatening and free of judgment.
Because animal-assisted therapy organizations like Furry Friends and Support Dogs are non-profit, they are constantly looking for animals and their people who wish to volunteer.
There are lots of characteristics these organizations look for in the animals they accept into their programs. Some programs choose to only accept dogs like Golden Retrievers and Labradors for their instinctual nature to retrieve. But many organizations look for outgoing, people-loving animals. They must be accepting of touch at any time by anyone. Organizations that regularly visit hospitals look for animals that are able to work around hospital equipment and are not frightened by mechanical noises.
Julie Vaughn, a certified animal behaviorist, discusses good and bad attention seeking behavior with potential Furry Friends volunteers going through the application process. Bad attention seeking behavior in animals can be compared to people’s bad manners.
“The thing about appropriate attention seeking is extremely important,” Winkler emphasizes. “These people are fragile, so the animal has to have good manners. They might paw at the person or pull out a cord.”
To learn more about organizations providing animal assisted therapy in specific areas, Dahlkamp and Winkler suggest people contact their veterinarians, local animal shelters, and their hospital’s community resources department.
“It’s the fact that you’ve taken the time out to visit with someone,” says Winkler. “When you’re in pain, every minute feels like a day. For us to visit them for an hour, it takes their mind off of the pain. It’s not a lot of effort, and the reward for these people is amazing.”
Furry Friends Pet Assisted Therapy Services
Support Dogs, Inc.