Dogs provide us comfort and love without judgment, unconditionally. It’s this trait that makes them especially good as therapy animals.
The role of a therapy animal is to visit hospitals, hospice, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and schools, sharing their love with children, the sick and the dying. The positive results of animal therapy can be amazing.
“There’s a spiritual connection between humans and animals. Animals accept us unconditionally,” explained Dr. Allison Welder, Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Southern Nevada College of Pharmacy (USNCOP). Dr. Welder volunteers as an animal therapy team with her dogs Abbie, Lulu and Tinker-Belle at Sunrise Children’s Hospital.
These deep connections improve health and well being. “Studies show that animal therapy results in lowered blood pressure, lowered heart and respiratory rates, and the patients sleep a lot better,” said Lisa Browder, Comfort Care Coordinator at the Nathan Adelson Hospice in Las Vegas. “The dogs are so nonjudgmental and they come in and they take everyone’s mind off the big elephant that’s in the room.”
Animal therapy in essence is pretty simple. An owner takes their dog to a hospital or health care facility and visits with the patients and their families. But, you can’t just walk in off the street and offer your pet’s services. Volunteers and their animals must go through training and registration.
Not every dog will make a good therapy animal. “A good therapy animal has a personality that’s very calm and loving. They have to have a compassion and understanding of human nature,” said Dr. Welder.
Therapy animals need more than just the right personality. Therapy dogs also need proper training and credentials. “Every animal has to be tested for health, behavior and skills, and obedience, and registered,” explained Dr. Welder. “They also have to be comfortable in all settings.”
A big step in becoming an animal therapy or animal companion volunteer team is passing the Canine Good Citizen Test. The American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Program, sponsored by K9 Advantix, is a certification program designed to reward dogs who have good manners at home and in the community. The two-part program stresses responsible pet ownership for owners and basic good manners for dogs. The program is used by AKC clubs, police and animal control agencies, therapy dog groups, 4-H groups and veterinarians. State legislatures began recognizing the CGC program as a means of advocating responsible dog ownership and 30 states now have Canine Good Citizen resolutions.
In addition to the AKC, the Delta Society provides animal therapy information and training. Delta Society is an international, non-profit, human service organization. Uniting millions of Americans who have mental and physical illnesses and disabilities with professionally trained therapy animals and service dogs, Delta Society programs promote human health and well-being through interactions with companion animals. The Delta Society also help animal therapy teams obtain liability insurance which is required for teams visiting most hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities.
After successfully completing the CGC program, animal therapy teams also need to attend volunteer training at the facility where they volunteer. Each facility offers a different training program, so volunteering at more than one, requires attending each program.
There are many places to volunteer as an animal therapy team including hospitals, nursing homes, hospice, schools, and rehabilitation facilities. The K-9 Therapists of Las Vegas offers information on local animal therapy programs, helps animal therapy teams find training opportunities, and provides information and support services to their members.
Dogs aren’t the only animals involved in animal therapy. Cats, ferrets, birds and even goats act as therapy animals across the country, although, it can be difficult to obtain the necessary liability insurance for small and exotic animals.
Mini horses, “minis” for short, are one of the newest arrivals in animal therapy. Minis are perfectly formed little horses, averaging between 32″ and 40″ in height. Because of their size and abilities, minis are being introduced into many of the same therapy roles formerly held by dogs. Not as intimidating as full-size horses, minis are perfect for touch therapy, therapy with children and the disabled, and are also being used as guide animals for the blind.
“There’s something about horses,” explained Nancy Czerw (pronounced “surf”), “there’s a wonderful interaction between the children and these non judgmental minis.”
Czerw based her children’s books Itty and Bitty: Two Miniature Horses and Itty and Bitty: Friends on the Farm on real-life minis Itty and Bitty owned by Johnnie Martin-Carey. Together they visit Texas hospitals, schools, and the Ronald McDonald House as a therapy team. “Itty and Bitty are ambassadors of their breed. They’re very sturdy herd animals, so they aren’t afraid of crowds and they cause a sensation wherever they go,” said Czerw.
The children and patients aren’t the only ones who benefit from animal therapy experiences. The hospital and health care facilities’ staffs enjoy having the animals around and volunteers often have deeply emotional experiences, too. “It’s very moving,” explained Czerw, “when toddlers who can’t walk are on top of the horses and get to move or when an autistic child connects with a mini.”
We might not be able to explain what makes the bond between humans and animals so strong, but pet owners know it exists and so do those who experience a hospital room visit from a therapy animal. People’s faces light up when therapy animals come into the room.
“As soon as some of our pet therapists go in with their animals it gives the patients and their families a mini vacation,” said Dr. Stewart Stein, Medical Director at Nathan Adelson Hospice. “They realize that there’s so much more to life and living.”
Get More Information
American Kennel Club: www.akc.org
Delta Society: www.deltasociety.org
K-9 Therapists of Las Vegas: www.lvk9.com
Itty and Bitty: www.ittyandbitty.com
Guide Horse Foundation: www.guidehorse.com